Are any ultra-processed foods safe to eat? – The Independent

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Which types of food you should eat to be healthy is a strong subject, now complicated further by warning messages about ultra-processed foods being bad for you.

Such food, which the British Nutrition Foundation says makes up more than half the food we eat in the UK, is often higher in fat, saturated fat, sugar and lower in fibre, protein and micronutrients, say researchers.

But a new study by academics from University College London (UCL), has found that people who rule out foods because they’re ultra-processed food (UPF) could be missing out on some healthier options.

The researchers looked at almost 3,000 different food items and compared their nutritional content with front-of-pack traffic-light labelling, and found that “not all ultra-processed foods had an unhealthy nutrient profile”, with over half of UPFs having no red front-of-pack traffic lights (with a red traffic light suggesting they were high in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt).

The most common UPFs with no red traffic lights included sandwiches, high-fibre breakfast cereals, plant-based milk alternatives, milkshakes and white bread.

The authors said meat-free products, for example, are also healthy according to the traffic-light system, and are green on fat, saturated fat, sugar and amber on salt, though they would be considered UPFs.

So what are UPFs, and should we eat them or not?

Bridget Benelam, a nutritionist from the British Nutrition Foundation, explains that broadly, UPFs have undergone industrial processing and contain ingredients not typically used at home. “For example, natural yoghurt would be considered a ‘minimally processed food’, whereas a yoghurt containing flavours or sweeteners would be ultra-processed,” she says.

“The associations between diets high in ultra-processed foods and ill-health are a concern.  We need to give people clear guidance on how to eat more healthily and make it easier for them to do so.”

Benelam says while front-of-pack traffic-light labels can help people identify foods that are healthier or less healthy, many UPFs have more red traffic lights than less processed foods, but that’s not the case for all UPFs.

She says the BNF has long recommend a diet with more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses and whole grains, as the best approach for long-term health, but points out: “Some ultra-processed foods such as lower-sugar wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread, low-fat yoghurts and baked beans, have mostly green or amber traffic lights because they have a healthier nutrient profile, and are lower in fat, saturates, salt and sugar. And, with millions of people in the UK suffering from food insecurity, they can be affordable source of essential nutrients.”

It’s a confusing state of affairs for consumers, but Professor Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, suggests it’s best for consumers not to worry too much about UPFs, as long as they eat a healthy balanced diet.

Wholegrain and cereal

Referring to the new UPF study, he says: “Unsurprisingly, the authors found many foods that are ultra-processed are high in fat, salt and sugar, and would be considered to be ‘unhealthy’ under existing food classification models. However, the authors also highlight that not all ultra-processed foods have an ‘unhealthy’ composition and would indeed be classed as healthy.”

He says there’s currently no evidence to suggest that processing has an adverse impact on health beyond food composition and possibly texture, and points out that because UPFs are usually easier to eat and may be tastier, people tend to eat more of them.

“People consume more ultra-processed foods because they tend to be more palatable,” he explains. “People are getting bigger and bigger – is it just because they’re consuming more sugar in UPFs, for example?

“Are UPFs necessarily bad for you? I think no, but that’s the big question and we simply don’t know the answer. There are some UPFs that are bad, and some that are not. We know high fat and high sugar aren’t good for health, but is something in the consumption of UPFs bad?”

Kuhnle stresses that shifting the focus of public health messaging from a well-understood system of food composition to “a rather ambiguous system of processing is likely to result in confusion, but not a better diet.

“Most people know what they should eat – the difficulty is actually doing it.”

He points out that fish fingers would be considered a UPF, for example, but says: “If a child won’t eat fish but will eat fish fingers, that’s a great way of getting them to eat fish, even if it’s a UPF.”

He adds: “I would generally say don’t worry – have a balanced diet and think about what’s in the food and don’t worry about UPFs too much in moderation.”

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