What are Ultra Processed Foods and How to Avoid Them
With bustling lifestyles and the need for convenience, it’s no wonder that ultra-processed foods are becoming more and more prominent in everyday life. From ready-to-eat meals to bottled iced coffees, these highly refined products often find their way into our daily eating habits.
But as the demand for quick and easy options continues to grow, so does the need to scrutinise the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health. New studies from the World Health Organisation warn us of the negative effects of ultra-processed foods, while NHS guidance encourages us to be more mindful of food labels.
An understanding of ultra-processed foods is vital. So to make the topic a little more digestible, we’ve condensed everything you need to know in this guide.
What are Ultra Processed Foods?
Ultra-processed foods are food products that have undergone extensive industrial processing, often involving the use of additives, preservatives, and artificial flavours. These highly refined items typically bear little resemblance to their original, whole-food components. Common examples include sugary snacks, packaged desserts, instant noodles, and fizzy drinks with artificial ingredients.
The transformation involved in the production of ultra-processed foods often strips them of essential nutrients while adding high levels of salt, sugar, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Recognising and understanding the nature of ultra-processed foods can help us make informed choices about our dietary habits and overall well-being.
List of Ultra Processed Foods in the UK
In the UK, there are many ultra-processed foods readily available in supermarkets. Some of the most popular include:
- Sugary cereals with added flavours
- Sugary fizzy drinks with artificial ingredients
- Energy drinks
- Chips and fries
- Frozen pizzas
- Microwaveable dinners
- Instant noodles and pastas
- Hot dogs
- Deli meats with added preservatives
- Breaded and processed chicken products
- Packaged instant soups
- Ready-made sandwiches with processed ingredients
- Chocolate bars
- Packaged cakes and pastries
- Ice cream with added toppings and flavours
- Sweetened ketchup and barbecue sauce
- Flavoured mayonnaise
- Processed salad dressings
- Packaged cookies and biscuits
- Industrial bread with additives
How to Spot Ultra Processed Foods
You can spot ultra-processed foods by checking food labels and being aware of certain characteristics. A key indicator is the product’s ingredient list – the presence of additives, preservatives, and artificial flavourings often signifies a highly processed product.
Paying attention to the level of food processing is essential. For example, items with long shelf lives and a lack of recognisable whole-food ingredients are more likely to fall into the ultra-processed category. Meanwhile, heavily marketed convenience foods, sugary snacks, and ready-to-eat meals can also be an indicator.
Utilising the traffic light system on packaging can be a helpful tool, as it provides a quick visual guide to the nutritional content of a product, particularly in terms of salt, sugar, and fat levels. The more green labels, the better.
Difference Between Processed and Ultra Processed Foods
The distinction between processed and ultra-processed foods depends on the transformation they undergo during manufacturing. Processed foods undergo minimal alterations from their original state, often involving simple methods like washing, chopping, or freezing. These modifications aim to enhance preservation, convenience, or palatability without fundamentally changing the food's nature.
On the other hand, ultra-processed foods undergo extensive industrial processing, involving the addition of numerous additives, preservatives and artificial flavours. This includes items that bear little resemblance to their original ingredients and are typically ready-to-eat or heat-and-serve products.
While both processed and ultra-processed foods have undergone some level of modification, the key difference is the degree of refinement and the presence of often-unhealthy additives in ultra-processed items.
What are Ultra Processed Drinks?
Ultra-processed drinks are those that have undergone extensive industrial processing, often involving the addition of artificial flavours, sweeteners, and preservatives. These beverages typically lack the nutritional value associated with natural or minimally processed options.
Common examples include sugary fizzy drinks, diet drinks, energy drinks, and pre-packaged shakes. The production of ultra-processed drinks often involves the inclusion of high levels of added sugars and the removal of natural components found in whole foods.
Ultra Processed Alcoholic Drinks
Like other ultra-processed products, ultra-processed alcoholic drinks also undergo extensive industrial processing, containing additives beyond traditional brewing or distillation ingredients. This goes beyond the standard fermented and distilled beverages like beer, wine, and spirits.
Examples of ultra-processed alcoholic drinks may include pre-mixed cocktails, flavoured malt beverages, and ready-to-drink cans with added sugars, artificial flavours, and preservatives. These drinks often prioritise convenience and novelty, but their production can result in reduced transparency regarding the source and quality of ingredients.
List of Ultra Processed Drinks in the UK
There are many ultra processed drinks that you’ll likely see in supermarkets across the UK. These include drinks such as:
- Sugary fizzy drinks, such as cola, with artificial ingredients
- Energy drinks
- Pre-packaged cocktails
- Cider with added flavours and sugars
- Bottled smoothies
- Protein shakes with artificial flavours
- Bottled iced coffees
- Sports drinks
- Artificially-flavoured waters
Are Ultra Processed Foods and Drinks Bad?
Ultra-processed foods often contain high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives while lacking essential nutrients found in whole, minimally processed foods. Consuming a diet rich in ultra-processed items has been linked to various health concerns, including obesity (World Health Organisation 2021) as well as cancer and cardiometabolic multimorbidity (World Health Organisation 2023).
The convenience and enjoyable taste of these foods and drinks contribute to their popularity, but the long-term effects on overall health raise significant concerns. While moderation is key, a growing body of evidence from the World Health Organisation suggests that minimising the intake of ultra-processed items in favour of whole, nutrient-dense foods can contribute to a healthier lifestyle and reduce the risk of associated health issues.
What is DASH Water’s Stance on Ultra Processed Foods?
At DASH Water, we believe in only using natural, simple ingredients. We infuse all of our sparkling water with real, wonky fruit, so there are never any artificial ingredients. We then add bubbles for a natural lift. Just water, bubbles, and wonky fruit. No sugar, sweetener, or calories.