How to decode food labels to take control of your diet and identify ultra-processed food – Irish Examiner

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Mass-produced bread, ready meals, breakfast cereals, reconstituted ham, shop-bought biscuits, fizzy drinks: Almost half the food in Irish shopping baskets falls into the ultra-processed category — and, often, we don’t even realise it or know what it is doing to our health.

Those statistics were initially published in the international research journal Public Health Nutrition in 2018.

It put Irish people at 45.9%, just above Belgium (44.6%), behind Britain at 50.7%, but far ahead of countries like Italy and Portugal (13.4% and 10.2% respectively).

The same research found a correlation between household availability of ultra-processed foods and the prevalence of adult obesity.

At the time, the term “ultra-processed food” wasn’t widely used. But with last year’s publication of Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food…and Why Can’t We Stop? by Chris van Tulleken, it came into common usage to the extent that it’s known by the acronym UPF.

That said, there is still much confusion about what exactly ultra-processed food is. UPF is a category that was singled out by the Climate and Health Alliance — a group of all-Ireland public health organisations and advocacy groups in their 2023 “Fixing Food Together” report.

Senior dietitian at the Irish Heart Foundation, and the report’s primary author, Orna O’Brien uses the internationally recognised Nova food processing classification system to define ultra-processed foods.

“These are foods that are typically high in sugar, fat, salt, and refined starches, made using ingredients that are not commonly found in a kitchen — like soy protein isolates or dextrose, and colourings, emulsifiers, or flavourings that make the food better looking, tastier, and give it a longer shelf life,” she says.

“These are foods designed to make you eat more of them.”

The report includes examples of ultra-processed foods: Sweetened beverages, sweet and savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared frozen dishes, canned/instant soups, chicken nuggets, and ice cream.

Concern is growing about the potentially harmful health effects of UPF, items that are often strongly branded and aggressively marketed.

According to recent studies, says O’Brien, “even a 10% increase in the proportion of UPF in the diet correlates to a 12% increase in cancers, 21% increase in depressive symptoms, and a 21% increase in cardiovascular disease”.

But how do we identify UPF? O’Brien has a few tips and most involve looking closely at food labels. “It’s hard to tell at a glance what is UPF, and often things that we associate with healthy foods — for example, wholemeal wraps, pitta bread, yoghurts — have lots of E numbers and stabilisers.”

Orna O’Brien at the launch of Fixing Food Together: Transitioning Ireland to a healthy and sustainable food system report by the Climate and Health Alliance.

To take an everyday example, typical pitta breads from a supermarket contain wholemeal wheat flour, water, yeast, spirit vinegar, salt, preservative (calcium propionate, also known as E282), and wheat starch.

Pitta breads made at home contain strong flour, yeast, salt, and olive oil. But homemade food takes time and can be expensive, which is why we’re all at the supermarket — buying pitta bread and other convenience foods.

There are many exceptions, of course. Full-fat plain yoghurt is a good example. Made from milk and yoghurt cultures, it is not ultra-processed, unlike flavoured yoghurts with sweeteners and added ingredients — like modified maize starch. Other examples of packaged food available in the supermarket not ultra-processed include frozen peas, tinned tomatoes, tinned pulses like chickpeas and kidney beans, tinned and smoked fish, pasta and couscous.

O’Brien also points out that a health claim on a packet can be a giveaway. “An apple doesn’t have a label saying that it’s a great source of fibre and vitamins,” she says. “But a packet of marshmallows can say ‘fat-free’, along with ‘made from natural flavours and sources of sweetness’.

“We can talk about risk and health implications — but at the same time having the option of eating tinned baked beans [UPF because the ingredients include modified cornflour, spice extracts and herb extracts] on a Wednesday evening when you are run off your feet is great. It’s about your overall nutritional diet.

“If you’re cooking from scratch most evenings, that’s inherently healthier.”

The ‘Fixing Food Together’ report is, as O’Brien points out, “primarily a policy paper — we have sent it to all of the health and environmental representatives in Government and also presented it at any relevant academic and public events.”

According to Orna O'Brien, a health claim on a packet can be a giveaway

According to Orna O’Brien, a health claim on a packet can be a giveaway

Included in its recommendations is an appeal to publish the long-promised Public Health (Obesity) Bill, including an online ban on marketing unhealthy food and beverages, “no fry zones for all new fast food outlets sited within one kilometre of schools and youth facilities”, and also developing legislation to ban UPF buy-one-get-one-free offers.

Until the Government enacts the bill, there are actions O’Brien recommends we can take as individuals:

1. Try to cook from scratch as much as you can. Include lots of fruit, vegetables, and pulses.

2. Try to reduce UPF, especially plastic-wrapped foods with mysterious ingredients. Take a look at cereals.

3. Read your labels. Are there additives? For example — emulsifiers, thickeners, bulking agents, foaming agents, and glazing agents are all used to make the foodstuff more palatable.

“These are positive things that people can do to give them a sense of control,” O’Brien says. “If you have more real food on your plate, you won’t be eating as much UPF.”

  • Fixing Food Together: A position paper from the Climate and Health Alliance is available at climateandhealthalliance.wordpress.com/resources.
  • Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop? is published by Cornerstone Press.

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