Why we should eat less ultra-processed food
Health and beauty

Why we should eat less ultra-processed food

They are within easy reach, visually appealing and cheaper than many fresh foods, but be careful, the additives and sweeteners can be bad for our health

Isabel Ibáñez


Friday, 9 February 2024, 19:13


Go to any vending machine in the workplace, school, university or hospital waiting room and you will find all the main types of mass-produced cakes full of chocolate and cream, chocolate bars, other snacks, soft drinks, and blended juices. Hardly ever will you find an apple or a banana. You could probably buy some of these packaged products – in plastic, of course - for less than a euro, while you might have to dig deeper into your pocket if you go to a grocers. Ultra-processed foods surround us, they are everywhere, they are more easily available than fresh foods and generally cheaper. They are also much worse for our health.

It is not difficult to spot which ones they are, as they can be distinguished by their bright colours on the supermarket shelves. Still, it helps to have an expert identify them, someone like Manuel Moñino, member of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and researcher at CIBEROBN (Spanish Biomedical Research Centre in Physio-pathology of Obesity and Nutrition - part-financed by the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid).

"They have additives and substances derived from other foodstuffs, and often a low content of the food it should be, as with chicken nuggets. Their nutritional quality is low, much of the energy content comes from fats and sugars and they are very palatable, that is, they are formulated to appeal to consumers."

He adds that they are backed by advertising campaigns suggesting they are healthy when they are not. Worse still, they often end up replacing the more nutritious foods typical of the Mediterranean diet. Highly attractive packaging is added and they are made available all over the place: "Sometimes a soft drink is cheaper than water".

The NOVA system classifies food into four groups based on how much they need processing.

Firstly we have either natural foods (fruit, veg, eggs, meat, fish...) or minimally processed ones (peeled, stoned, pasteurised...).

Next come cooking ingredients such as sugar, salt, spices, oil and flour.

Thirdly, there are processed foods. These contain two or three ingredients used in the various methods to prepare that food, such as salting, canning, smoking or non-alcoholic fermentation such as mixtures for bread and cheese.

The fourth category belongs to ultra-processed foods that typically include four, five or more ingredients, passing through multiple processes. Some examples: mass-produced pastries and pizzas, ice cream, soft drinks, dairy desserts, snacks, processed cold cuts of meat.

Looking at one food item - tuna: fresh tuna falls under natural foods; the oil and salt to cook it are added ingredients; if we put that tuna in a can with those ingredients, then we are in group three; and ultra-processed would be tuna pâté. Others in Group 4 would be fish fingers, flavoured yoghurts, fruit nectar drinks or rice cakes.

The Nova food classification

  • 1. Natural foods and those requiring minimal processing: All edible plants, animals and fungi, algae and water. Minimally processed means all natural foods that are slightly changed by processes such as the elimination of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, filtering, toasting, cooking, alcohol-free fermentation, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing and vacuum-sealing.

    2. Processed ingredients: Oils, sugar, salt… Foods sourced from category 1 that are seasoned or cooked with these ingredients that, in turn, are naturally sourced and processed by pressing, refining, crushing, drying...
    3. Processed foods: Canned vegetables, tinned fish, preserved fruit, cheese, freshly-made bread... Any foods from category 1 with salt, oil, sugar or other ingredients from group 2 being added to aid conservation or preparation or, in the case of bread and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. Most have two or three added ingredients.
    4. Ultra-processed. Soft drinks, snacks, reconstituted meat products and frozen ready meals. Any products made from food-sourced substances and additives, with little or nothing untouched from category 1. Typical contents: sugars, oils, fats or salt; casein, lactose, whey, gluten; preservatives, antioxidants, stabilisers; dyes, colour stabilisers; flavour enhancers; sweeteners. Processes include carbonation, emulsification, hydrogenation, extrusion and other forms of moulding or shaping, plus pre-processes for fried foods (eg. pre-cooking and pre-freezing). The aim is to create ready-to-eat, branded products with a long shelf life that are tasty and low cost. Appealing pa

Health impacts

Many studies have identified the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health. Moñino states: "The diets of different peoples have been assessed, showing that the consumption of highly processed foods is clearly associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes..."

This knowledge is used by governments to ban advertising of certain products and to enforce such products to be labelled with a warning about their high content of fat, sugar, salt.

He further points out that there are also studies into these products and their environmental impact, largely due to their carbon footprint, water consumption and their impact on biodiversity.

Nutritional content

Moñino acknowledges that "an ultra-processed product does not always warrant such a dangerous description. Some will have nutritional content, those rich in fibre without the fats... tuna pâté, for instance, is nutritious, although high in salt. They might have some of the problematic characteristics of ultra-processed foods, but the rest have them all".

Moñino recommends avoiding them for daily consumption, "not having them at home and sticking with what we like among the healthy options, the veg, beans and pulses we prefer most, nuts, dairy products... maintain a healthy food cupboard. It's okay to maybe drink one fizzy drink per week, but it really affects our health if we do it regularly. Some people drink them instead of water".

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