Can Ultra-processed Foods Ever be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Can Ultra-processed Foods Ever be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Given the high cost of living and a lack of time for many people, ultra-processed foods are necessary in today’s world. But could they ever be part of a healthy diet? Many of the world’s leading experts in the nutritional field would tend to say no. However, as with many things in life, ‘in moderation’ and ‘frequency’ are the keywords.

We live in a world where time is often at a premium. After a hard day’s work, many, particularly parents, struggle to find the enthusiasm and energy to cook a healthy meal using organic and healthy produce. Instead, they’re more likely to opt for a ready-meal replete with chemicals, emulsifiers, colourings and many other confusing additives.

When you have hungry children demanding to be fed, ultra-processed foods are an obvious choice, as they save time and are often a cheaper solution which is a major factor in these times of high living costs.

There are also other reasons why you’ll find ultra-processed foods in many kitchen cupboards, and that’s down to a naughty trick played by the companies making them.

Often they will put bright, eye-catching colours on the packaging, with healthy smiling people or cartoon characters on them, to give the impression they are good for you and attract the attention of the young. But hey, that’s how marketing works, and let’s not ignore that the food companies are out to make money over and above everything else.

It’s not only in the UK where naughty tricks are being played. Earlier this year, a survey was carried out in US supermarkets, looking at what ingredients were in the processed Vegan foods they had on their shelves, products that most would assume are healthy. To their surprise, not only were the vegan alternatives far from healthy, some contained substances that were unidentifiable in a laboratory, and it could be a similar picture here in the UK.

A woman putting artificial sweeteners into her drink

Over recent years, consumers have become far savvier when it comes to foods, learning that everyday food items they once thought were healthy, such as low-calorie artificial sweeteners in drinks, were playing havoc with their microbiomes, an essential part of keeping them healthy. The same is true of some ultra-processed foods, which is why some expert advice is needed, and this is where the British Nutrition Foundation comes into play.

The foundation recently conducted a survey, and the results show a growing concern over ultra-processed foods; however, somewhat surprisingly, the foundation states that some ultra-processed foods can still be part of a balanced diet.

The new survey looked at British adults’ views on processed foods and follows a previous similar survey which was carried out in 2021. It found that compared to 2021, more people had heard of the term ‘ultra-processed food’ (46% vs 30%) and were trying to reduce these foods in their diet (33% vs 25%).

What determines ultra-processed food?
The term ultra-processed foods is usually based on a food classification method called NOVA. This defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives. The ultra-processed category includes a wide range of foods and drinks.

Many of these are less healthy options that we are already advised to reduce in the diet, such as sugary drinks, cakes, ice creams, pastries, sweets, takeaway fried chicken or deep pan pizza. But foods like sliced wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, baked beans, tomato-based pasta sauces and fruit yoghurts are also usually classified as ultra-processed, and these can be a convenient and affordable source of some important nutrients.

Bridget Benelam, a British Nutrition Foundation spokesperson, explained, “For many of us when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly. These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.”

The top 5 foods that people thought were classed as ultra-processed from a list in the recent survey were:

  • Ready meals (50%)
  • Vegetarian meat alternatives (41%)
  • Shop-bought burgers (32%)
  • Packaged breakfast cereals with added sugar (32%)
  • Shop-bought sausages (30%)

However, fewer people classified baked beans (9%), low-fat fruit yoghurts (10%), ice cream (14%), and sliced bread (19%) as ultra-processed.

A mother making a healthy breakfast for her children

The survey also found that, while most people agreed that it was better to cook from scratch than to use processed foods (68%), nearly half agreed that a healthy balanced diet could include some processed foods (49%) and that processed foods can be convenient to save time preparing food (49%).

Benelam continued, “It’s great if you can cook from scratch when you have time, but I know for me, as a working parent, it’s often not an option. We need to make healthy eating easier and more affordable, not more difficult and expensive. Choosing healthier processed foods is one way that can help people fit healthy eating into their lives”.

  • All figures are from YouGov Plc. YouGov has conducted the research on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation.
  • 2023 Survey (repeated from 2021): Total sample size was 2323 adults. Fieldwork took place between the 22nd – 23rd of March, 2023. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
  • 2021 Survey: Total sample size was 2127 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 24th January 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

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Can Ultra-processed Foods Ever be Part of a Healthy Diet? 2

Natasha Godbold

Creative Director / Writer

Natasha is a co-founder of Luxurious Magazine® and has undertaken the role of Creative Director. She is a keen photographer and regularly accompanies Paul on hotel and restaurant reviews. Born in Moscow, Natasha like her husband Paul has experienced living in multiple countries around the world. She is bi-lingual and has degrees in English Language and English Literature. Natasha covers all aspect of the luxury industry in her work. Her hobbies include health and fitness, culture and learning about nature and animal welfare.

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