Ultra-processed foods: Is UK action likely?

2 April 2023

We seem hear about processed food all the time, but what are ultra-processed foods, why are they a concern and what is being done about them?

Fast food, mass-produced bread, sausages, fried snacks and sugary breakfast cereals. When we think about processed food, these tend to be the products that spring to mind. But did you know these are actually classified as ‘ultra-processed foods’? This category of processed food also encompasses alcoholic drinks such as whiskey, gin and vodka, alongside regularly consumed items like instant soups and biscuits. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are very much in the spotlight regarding problems they can pose to public health. Processed foods have long been part of the debate, but if you’re wondering what ‘ultra processed’ foods are, you’re not alone…

Ultra-processed foods – what are they?

Most foods we buy are processed to some extent. From fermenting to salting meats and bread baking, food processing has been around for millennia. Bread is the original processed food, but even it has gotten a bad reputation recently due to the additives and low nutrition in some products. Processed foods as those that have undergone changes to their natural state, such as by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Whereas unprocessed foods are whole foods in their natural state, i.e., the vitamins and nutrients are still very much intact.

Today much of food processing is about making foods safer and longer-lasting. For example, manufacturers process beans, drying them to make them shelf-stable. Milk is pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. On the other end of the processed food spectrum, some foods are highly processed, i.e., ultra-processed. They tend to have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colours or preservatives. Examples of typical UPFs include frozen meals, soft drinks, fast food, cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

Not all processed foods are the same

Different levels of food are classified as ‘processed’. One way to explain the different levels is the NOVA food classification system, developed by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The system has four categories:

  1. Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods – these items are dried, fermented, pasteurised, frozen or packaged to preserve their natural state, e.g., fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs and milk.
  2. Group 2 – Processed Culinary Ingredients – these are extracted from Group 1 or nature and include oils, butter, lard, sugar and salt. They’re usually used for cooking or seasoning.
  3. Group 3 – Processed foods – these items are produced by adding salt, sugar, oil or other substances (Group 2 foods) to Group 1 items to preserve or make them palatable, e.g., canned vegetables, canned fish, cheese, beer and wine.
  4. Group 4 – Ultra-processed foods – these items are made entirely by industrial processes, like hydrogenation or adding emulsifiers, artificial colours, artificial flavours or preservatives. They include salty snacks, ice cream, carbonated soft drinks, pastries, breakfast cereals and frozen pizza.

Are ultra-processed foods bad news?

Due to their production methods, UPFs tend to contain high levels of saturated fats or added sugar and salt. These ingredients are known to harm health when consumed in excess, generally providing less nutritional value. In fact, recent studies have added to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to impact public health negatively. Nowadays, these claims are rarely refuted. Overconsumption of ultra-processed food has been linked to various health issues: colorectal and breast cancer, obesity, depression, and even early death.

Levels of UPF consumption in the UK are particularly high. Research shows that more than half the calories the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods. Studies have also shed light on the fact that half of all the food bought by UK families is now “ultra-processed”.

How are governments responding?

The pandemic has increased our awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing, and there is now considerable awareness of the dangers of UPFs and foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Around the world, there are also efforts to tackle the problem. The World Health Organisation has previously recommended restricting ultra-processed foods as part of a healthy, sustainable diet. Government guidelines in Brazil advise people to avoid ultra-processed foods altogether, while French guidelines recommend limiting consumption.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ultra-processed foodsAn independent report commissioned by the UK government in 2021 also proposed reforms aimed at the ultra-processed food industry, which recommended a tax on sugar and salt in processed foods.

Clearly, there is a need for reform – and for developers to innovate in this space. Initiatives such as “five-a-day” to “traffic light” labelling and the “sugar tax” already signal increased efforts to encourage and inform consumers, as well as to regulate producers and retailers. A British Nutrition Foundation report found that “43 percent of men and 51 percent of women agree that checking the nutrition label on processed foods can help them make healthier choices”. Consumers want to understand more about their food. This will surely lead to government legislation to help make the change.

We looked at the challenges and opportunities of developing products compliant with high fat, salt and sugar guidance in a Froghop webinar. Watch it here.