The Issue of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-Processed Foods

How Bad Are They For Our Health?

In recent times, the surge in industrially processed foods has dominated headlines, prompting us to rethink our daily dietary choices. In this talk, we will explore not only how to reduce our consumption of ultra-processed foods, but also discover alternatives to enhance our overall nutritional intake. This enlightening discussion will explore:

  • The difference between processed and ultra-processed foods
  • Examples of UPF’s and their potential health implications
  • The roles of additives, bulking agents, preservatives, colourings and stabilisers in our food
  • The world of manmade seed oils and processed meats and the reasons behind the impact on our health

The difference between processed and ultra-processed foods

How to spot ‘food-like substances’

Processed Foods:

Minimal Processing – Processed foods undergo some level of processing, which may include washing, cutting, pasteurisation, freezing, canning, or drying. These processes are typically applied to make the food safe, extend its shelf life, or improve its convenience.

Familiar Ingredients – Processed foods usually contain recognisable, simple ingredients. For example, canned vegetables, frozen fruits, and packaged pasta sauce are considered processed foods. The ingredients are often items you might use in your own kitchen.

Nutritional Variability – The nutritional quality of processed foods can vary widely. Some processed foods can be quite nutritious, especially when they contain minimal additives and preservatives. However, some processed foods may have added sugars, salt, or unhealthy fats.

Ultra-Processed Foods:

High Level of Processing – Ultra-processed foods are highly processed and typically involve multiple complex processes such as extrusion, moulding, and chemical additives. They are often created in industrial facilities and may bear little resemblance to whole foods. Prof Tim Spector calls them ‘FOOD-LIKE SUBSTANCES’.

Ingredient Complexity – Ultra-processed foods contain a long list of ingredients, many of which are additives like artificial colours, flavours, emulsifiers, and preservatives. They often include little, if any, whole, ‘real’ or minimally processed ingredients.

Low Nutritional Quality – Ultra-processed foods are often energy-dense but nutrient-poor.

They tend to be high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined carbohydrates, while lacking essential vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.

Palatability and Long Shelf Life – Ultra-processed foods are often designed to be hyperpalatable, making them appealing and easy to over-consume. They also have a long shelf life, which contributes to their widespread availability.

In summary, while both processed and ultra-processed foods undergo some level of processing, the key difference lies in the extent of processing, the complexity of ingredients, and the nutritional quality. Processed foods can be part of a balanced diet when chosen wisely, while ultra-processed foods should be consumed sparingly due to their potential health risks.

Examples of UPF’s

Breakfast Cereals:

Many breakfast cereals are highly processed and loaded with added sugars, artificial flavours, and colours. They often lack whole grains and dietary fibre.

Fast Food:

Most fast-food items like burgers, fries, and fried chicken are considered ultraprocessed due to their extensive processing, high fat content, and use of additives.

Sugary Fizzy Drinks:

Soda and other sugary beverages are prime examples of ultraprocessed foods. They are laden with sugar, artificial flavours, and often contain caffeine.

Artificially Flavoured Drinks:

Some fruit juices and fruit drinks contain artificial flavours and added sugars, making them ultra processed. They are also low in fibre making them very high GL.

Packaged Foods:

Items like potato chips, cheese puffs, and most commercial snack bars are ultra-processed. They tend to be high in salt, unhealthy fats, and additives.

Frozen Ready Meals:

Many frozen meals are ultra-processed. They often contain preservatives, artificial flavours, and high levels of sodium to enhance taste and extend shelf life.


Most candies, gummies, and other sweets are highly processed and loaded with sugar, artificial colours, and artificial flavours.

Instant Noodles and Soups:

These products often contain numerous additives and preservatives, in addition to high levels of sodium.

Processed Meats:

Products like hot dogs, sausages, and some lunch meats are highly processed and often contain nitrates and other additives.

Sauces and Dressings:

Many commercial sauces and condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce contain added sugars, artificial flavours and preservatives.

Baked Goods:

Mass-produced pastries, cakes, cookies, and doughnuts typically contain trans fats, artificial additives, and high levels of sugar.

Flavoured Yoghurts:

Many flavoured yogurts are ultra-processed, containing added sugars, artificial flavours, and colours. They are often low in real fruit content.

What Are The Potential Health Implications?

The consumption of ultra processed foods is associated with several health implications due to their low nutritional quality and high content of unhealthy additives and ingredients. Consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods has been associated with various health concerns, including an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. This is partly due to their high calorie content, low nutritional value, and the potential negative impacts on overall dietary patterns.

Here are some of the key health implications of consuming these foods.

General Problems Include

  • Reduced Satiety: These foods tend to be less satiating, leading people to consume more calories than they need, which can contribute to overeating and weight gain.
  • Nutrient Deficiencies: Ultra-processed foods are typically lacking in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre, which are important for overall health. A diet high in these foods may lead to nutrient deficiencies.
  • Negative Impact on Mental Health: Some studies suggest that diets rich in ultra-processed foods may be associated with an increased risk of depression and other mental health issues.
  • Inflammation: The excessive consumption of unhealthy fats and additives found in ultra-processed foods can promote chronic inflammation in the body, which is linked to various chronic diseases.
  • Addictive Properties: Ultra-processed foods are often designed to be hyper-palatable, making them more likely to be consumed in excess. This can lead to cravings and potential food addiction-like behaviours.
  • Negative Impact on Dietary Patterns: A diet high in ultra-processed foods can crowd out healthier options like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, leading to imbalanced and less nutritious eating patterns.

Key Health Concerns

Weight Gain and Obesity

As we’ve established, ultra-processed foods are often high in calories, particularly from added sugars and unhealthy fats.

Over consumption of these high-calorie, low-nutrient foods can lead to weight gain and contribute to obesity due to changes in metabolic function, blood glucose control, hormone dysregulation and gut microbiome imbalances caused by consumption of these foods.

Obesity is defined as having a body-mass  index (BMI) equal to or greater than 30.

Across many middle-income countries – particularly across Eastern Europe, Central

Asia, North Africa, and Latin America – more than 15% of deaths were attributed to obesity in 2017.

Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease, for example, may be impacted by the excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods, especially those high in trans fats and added sugars, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

The most important behavioural risk factors of heart disease and stroke are unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol.

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the leading cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year, (WHO).

Type 2 Diabetes

Diets rich in ultra-processed foods are associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to their impact on insulin resistance and blood sugar levels.

Type 2 diabetes is recognised as a serious public health concern with a considerable impact on human life and health expenditures.

It is recommended to check your HbA1c (blood glucose) annually and to also consider wearing a CGM (continuous blood glucose monitor) to check for unusual spikes and patterns.

Globally, an estimated 462 million individuals are affected by type 2 diabetes, corresponding to 6.28% of  the world’s population.

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Ultra-processed foods can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension) through various mechanisms, primarily due to their high sodium content, low nutrient density, and potential impact on overall dietary patterns.

For better heart health and to lower the risk of high blood pressure, it’s recommended to minimise the consumption of ultra-processed foods and focus on a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods, especially those high in potassium, magnesium, and dietary fibre.

The number of adults with hypertension increased from 594  million in 1975 to 1.13 billion in 2015,

with the increase seen largely in lowand middle-income countries, (WHO).

Digestive Problems

Ultra-processed foods are often low in dietary fibre, which can lead to digestive issues such as constipation and an increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders.

➢ Reduced Microbial Diversity

➢ Shift in Microbial Composition

➢ Inflammation and Metabolic Changes

➢ Altered Gut Barrier Function

➢ Shift Towards Pathogenic Bacteria

➢ Impaired Production of Short-Chain Fatty Acids

➢ Hormonal Changes

➢ Impact on Mental Health

IBS is a common condition that affects an estimated 10-15% of the world population. While it can cause mild to moderate discomfort in some people, others may experience more serious side effects like abdominal pain and bloating. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S40245. PMID: 24523597; PMCID: PMC3921083

The roles of additives, bulking agents, preservatives, colourings and stabilisers in our food.

Additives, bulking agents, preservatives, colourings, and stabilisers are commonly used in the food industry to enhance the taste, appearance, texture, and shelf life of food products. Here are the roles of these components in our food.


Flavour Enhancers: Additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG) enhance the natural flavours of food, making them taste better.

  • Sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners like aspartame are used to add sweetness to food and beverages without adding calories.
  • Texture Enhancers: Some additives improve the texture of food, making it creamier, thicker, or smoother. For example, carrageenan is used in dairy products.
  • Antioxidants: These additives help prevent food from spoiling by inhibiting the oxidation of fats and other components. Common antioxidants include BHA and BHT.
  • Bulking Agents: Bulking agents like maltodextrin and cellulose add volume and texture to foods. They can make processed foods feel more substantial without significantly altering their calorie content.


MSG is neurotoxic by affecting the chemical composition of hippocampus which activates neurodegenerative pathways.


These chemicals are linked to several health concerns including endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity.


People with diabetes or insulin resistance should also limit their intake to control their blood sugar levels.


  • Shelf-Life Extension: Preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate help inhibit the growth of bacteria, moulds, and yeasts in food, thereby extending the shelf life and preventing spoilage.
  • Safety: Some preservatives, like nitrates and nitrites, are used in cured meats to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and to enhance food safety.

Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate

May alter the composition of the gut microbiome, potentially leading to health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other digestive disorders.

Nitrates and Nitrites

Due to the formation of nitrosamine compounds, a large amount of which are considered to be carcinogenic, cancer risk is the most serious adverse effect of nitrate and nitrite intake.

Cured Meats

Research shows that eating processed meats like bacon and cold cuts may increase your chances for

stomach and colorectal cancer.

Colourings and Stabilisers

  • Appearance: Food colourings are added to improve the visual appeal of products. They make foods look more appealing and attractive, especially when natural colours are lost during processing. Examples include the use of caramel for colour in soft drinks or annatto in cheese.
  • Texture and Consistency: Stabilisers are used to maintain the texture and consistency of food products. They prevent ingredients from separating or settling. For example, pectin is used as a stabiliser in jams.
  • Emulsifiers: Emulsifiers, a type of stabiliser, help combine ingredients that would typically separate, like oil and water, creating a stable mixture. Lecithin is a common emulsifier.


Carrageenan is a naturally occurring polysaccharide extracted from red seaweed. It’s used as a thickening and stabilising agent in food products, including dairy alternatives, soups, and processed meats.


Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many sugar-free and “diet” products. It’s much sweeter than sugar, with low calories, and commonly found in soft drinks, sugar free gum, and desserts.


Emulsifiers are substances that help mix and stabilise two or more immiscible liquids, such as oil and

water, in food and cosmetics. They enable the creation of uniform, stable mixtures.

Beware of ‘Natural Flavourings’

Natural flavourings can be derived from a wide range of sources, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and other natural ingredients. These natural flavourings are used to enhance the taste and aroma of various food products. Here are some examples of natural flavourings.

➢ Vanilla

➢ Lemon extract

➢ Strawberry

➢ Mint

➢ Cinnamon

➢ Orange

➢ Chocolate

➢ Almond

➢ Maple

➢ Peppermint

➢ Caramel

➢ Raspberry

➢ Coffee

➢ Banana

➢ Hazelnut

A Word on Processed Meats

Processed meats pose several health risks.

  • They are typically high in unhealthy fats, sodium, and additives.
  • Additionally, they undergo various processing methods, including salting, curing, smoking, and fermentation, which can produce harmful compounds.
  • One major concern is their link to an increased risk of chronic diseases.
  • Regular consumption of processed meats, like sausages, bacon, and hot dogs, have been associated with higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Moreover, these meats often contain nitrites, which can form carcinogenic compounds when cooked at high temperatures, potentially increasing the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • It is advisable to reduce the risk of various chronic health conditions.Instead, focusing on lean sources of protein and whole, minimally processed foods is recommended for better overall health.

A Word on MSG (glutamate)

Glutamate, often in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG), is a flavour enhancer commonly used in ultra-processed foods. Its main role is to create a savoury or “umami” taste that can be highly appealing to consumers. This flavour enhancement tricks the brain into perceiving the food as more delicious and satisfying, potentially leading to overconsumption. The excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods, high in glutamate and often low in nutritional value, has been associated with health concerns such as obesity and metabolic issues.

Consequently, glutamate’s presence in these foods may contribute to unhealthy eating habits and the overall negative impact of such diets on public health.

The World of Manmade Seed Oils and Processed Meats And The Reasons Behind The Impact on Our Health

The World of Manmade Seed Oils

Industrially processed seed oils have a long history. Their creation has evolved over centuries. The process of creating these oils has been refined and industrialised in recent history.Ancient Methods involved grinding or crushing the seeds and then pressing them to extract the oil. Modern Methods involve solvent extraction like hexane to extract oil from seeds. Once the oil is extracted, it undergoes refining processes to remove impurities, such as gums, waxes, and free fatty acids.

This refining process typically involves degumming, neutralisation, bleaching, and deodorisation.

Today, industrially processed seed oils are an integral part of the food and industrial sectors. They are used for cooking, baking, frying and in a wide range of food products, as well as in non-food applications like biofuels, cosmetics, and industrial lubricants.

What is the Omega-6-3 Ratio?

The Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio refers to the balance of two essential fatty acids in the human diet, specifically, the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, meaning the body cannot produce them and must obtain them from the diet.

Manmade Oils Versus Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-6 Fatty Acids These are commonly found in vegetable oils like soybean, corn, and safflower oil, as well as in nuts and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids play a role in inflammation and immune response.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids These are found in fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and their importance in brain health.

How to Increase Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

  • Increase the intake of foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Reduce the consumption of processed and fried foods that are high in Omega-6 fatty acids from refined vegetable oils.
  • Be mindful of the types of cooking oils used in food preparation (choosing oils with a better balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3).

Closing Thoughts and Resource Recommendations

There is compelling evidence from the scientific community associating a high intake of some processed meats with an increased risk of chronic disease. This emphasises the need for balance in the diet; individuals can make easy substitutes for processed meats to avoid eating them every day, for instance switching ham for salmon.Don’t be fooled by clever marketing. By default, if you are eating a whole foods, ‘true’ Mediterranean Diet that has been home cooked from natural sources, then you are going to be limiting your consumption of ultra processed foods

Click here for your FREE video on Ultra-Processed Foods 

Resource Recommendations

Fat, Stressed, & Sick: The Role of Glutamate and Hidden MSG in Our Food Supply with Katherine

Reid, PhD

Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food…and Why Can’t We Stop?

Prof Tim Spector: Food for Life: Your Guide to the New Science of Eating Well