Avoid these 10 ultra-processed foods!

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 20 June 2018.
Tagged: additives, health, healthy eating, junk food, nutrition, processing, UPF

Avoid these 10 ultra-processed foods!

Think processed food only means frozen pizza and bags of chips? Or maybe it’s that white sliced supermarket bread, or anything in a packet? Think again. While the definition of processed foods embraces everything from tinned tomatoes to frozen berries (even cooking is actually a form of processing), it's often only those ultra-processed foods (UPF) you need to avoid. These are the ones considered the ‘root of all evil’ when it comes to poor diets and obesity.  Read on for my thoughts ...

How I classify processed foods

I like to divide processed foods into four categories:

  1.  Minimally processed

These are nutritious items such as pre-cut and peeled pumpkin, potatoes and other veges, bagged salad leaves, bagged spinach, sliced vegetables, and unsalted, roasted nuts — often simply prepped for cooking convenience. These preserve freshness, improve taste and save us time.

  1. Lightly processed 

These are also nutritious and convenient for busy folk. They include those foods that have been canned, dried or frozen such as dried fruit, canned legumes, cheese, pasta, canned sardines, frozen peas and other vegetables, pasteurised milk, bran cereal, yoghurt. They supply nutrients and make foods available out of season. You can still recognise the ingredients that go into them. 

  1. Heavily processed

This is food that’s not in its original form or food that is not naturally occurring such as deli meats, many breakfast cereals, grain bars, oils, sugars and flours. Plus those culinary ingredients such as salt, butter or sugar and food industry ingredients such as maltodextrin and citric acid. 

  1.  Ultra-processed

These are what you and I would recognise as ‘junk food’. These are the items that give all processing a bad name. Often dubbed "convenience foods", they include pre-made easy snacks like chips, fries, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, nuggets, energy bars, and carbonated and sugared sweet drinks. 

 Increased snacking

JUNK Drink and some snack atching TV 954811920 1248x844 1Since the 1990s, ‘Big Snack’— the multi-national manufacturers of packaged, long shelf-life snacks designed to displace meals—have greatly increased their penetration, first of high-income countries like the USA, UK, Australia and NZ, and lately of lower-income countries like Peru, Chile, Mexico, India, China and many nations of Africa and Asia.  

It’s all on a spectrum 

All processed foods fall on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed. However, the ones I think you should avoid to protect your health are these ultra-processed (UPFs) products that are unhealthy and tend to damage the nutritional quality of the diet. 

Not all processing is bad

Not all processed food is unhealthy but most people think of it as ‘bad for you’. Cooking, canning, freezing and drying are all processing methods with both good and bad sides. For instance, processing increases the availability of lycopene (a key antioxidant) in tomato sauce (good) but adds unwanted salt and sugar (bad). 

 What’s wrong with UPFs? 

Here are the 10 nutritional problems identified by researchers. UPFs are ready-to-eat snacks that:

  1. taste so good it’s hard to stop eating them once you open the packet, often claimed to be the basis of food addiction
  2. are high in kilojoules or Calories
  3. are high in added sugar, added salt, with bad fats and numerous undesirable flavours, colours and preservatives 
  4. are low in vitamins and minerals
  5. have had their fibre taken out
  6. are mostly made, advertised and sold by large multi-national companies 
  7. are ready to consume, requiring no preparation which is an enormous advantage over fresh and perishable whole foods
  8. have a long shelf life with a low bacterial count so they’re safe to eat for ages
  9. lack ‘soul’ and connection to their raw ingredients
  10. lack satisfaction long-term as they are rapidly digested and absorbed.

JUNK Pringles down a PacketUPFs have been blamed for obesity and are now a term used as shorthand to denote disapproval for a product. What they mean is that ultra-processed products are mostly unhealthy. Studies show they tend to damage the nutritional quality of diets and to increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Ultra Processed Foods are created from substances extracted from whole foods such as the cheap parts or remnants of animals plus inexpensive ingredients such as refined starches, sugars, fats and refined oils, flavours, preservatives and colours. 

Fresh vs processed

Compare the fresh original food with its processed counterpart in this table. Processed foods often equate with convenience at the cost of nutritional benefit.

Fresh, real food

Processed end product

Strawberries

Strawberry fruit straps or fruit fix, strawberry topping, strawberry shakes

Corn on the cob 

Canned corn kernels, popped corn, corn starch, corn syrup, corn chips

Orange

Citrus jellies, orange cordial, orange soft drink e.g. Fanta

Banana

Banana cake, banana lollies, banana syrup topping

Potato

Potato chips, fries, wedges, crisps 

Tomatoes

Tomato puree, paste, soup, sauce

My 10 worst UPFs to avoid  

JUNK Cheezels closeup

  1. Fizzy soft drink
  2. Chocolate-hazelnut spread e.g. Nutella
  3. ‘Pods’ and similar sweet baked snacks
  4. Potato crisps
  5. Corn chips 
  6. Instant noodles
  7. Sweet biscuits and biscuit-like snacks
  8. Processed cheese sticks 
  9. Flavoured, sugary alcoholic drinks such as Breezers and Cruisers based on spirits like rum, bourbon, whiskey, gin and vodka
  10. Muesli bars, energy bars, protein bars, roll-ups.

The bottom line 

 Remember that UPFs are convenient, portable, shelf-stable and mess-free. They are easy to overeat, hit all our bliss points, and are more-ish. There is no need for cutlery or crockery. They save us time and provide something quick AND cheap. Steer clear of them whenever you can.  

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.