Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make (2024)

Many of us begin our day with a simple bowl of cereal. Later, we might snack on a protein bar, or some ‘healthy’ crisps. But did you know these seemingly harmless foods are actually classified as ultra-processed foods (UPFs)?

The food category has been in the spotlight lately, and (unsurprisingly) not in a positive way. We’ve known processed foods aren’t good for us for a long time, but recent studies have shown just how detrimental they can be for our bodies, linking high consumption of UPFs to increased risk of diseases like cancer and diabetes. Here we speak to nutritionist Kim Pearson to find out more about identifying UPFs, and the potential health risks.

Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs): Everything You Need To Know

What Are Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs)?

A large portion of the Western diet is processed to an extent – fruits and vegetables are frozen, for instance, and fish is canned. These kinds of minimal processing aren’t usually a cause for concern: the problems arise when foods are engineered on a greater scale in order to change the flavour and/or texture. So how can we spot them?

Kim outlines the three key criteria to look for when identifying a UPF.

  1. ‘It comes in a packet.
  2. Contains more than five ingredients.
  3. Contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra processed food group. Either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents).’

Which Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs) Might Surprise Us – And What Can We Swap Them For?

While some foods scream ultra processed (ready meals, doughnuts, cookies, we’re looking at you), others are much more surprising – and often marketed as healthy options. Energy bars, pesto, almond milk and protein drinks are all ultra processed foods, to name a few. Here Kim shares some UPFs that might come as a shock, and offers some swaps.

  • Hovis Wholemeal Sliced Bread: Swap for a homemade loaf – try the Lifechanging Loaf of Bread recipe.
  • Eat Natural bars: Swap for a small handful of unroasted nuts with blueberries.
  • Activia Yoghurt: Swap for plain organic natural yoghurt or coconut milk yogurt.
  • Belvita Breakfast Biscuits: Swap for egg muffins. Make a batch and keep them in the fridge for a convenient, healthy grab and go breakfast.
  • Proper Chips Lentil Chips (same goes for Popchips and Hummus Chips): Swap for olives or home made kale crisps.

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make (2)


What Are Ultra-Processed Meats?

A new study by Harvard University has thrown ultra-processed meats into the spotlight – and it’s not a good thing. According to the American university, eating processed meat and fish products regularly increases the risk of death by up to 13 percent. This includes:

  • Sausages
  • Burgers
  • Fish fingers
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Turkey twizzlers

And much more. The study concluded we should ‘[limit] consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long term health’, especially ‘sugar and artificially sweetened drinks and processed meats’. Other bad apples include ready meals and ice cream.

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make (3)

How Are UPFs Affecting Our Health?

‘As a nation we eat far too much ultra processed food,’ says Kim. ‘Data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2008–2014) found that ultra processed foods (UPFs) account for 56.8 percent of total energy intake and 64.7 percent of total free sugars in the UK diet.’

This figure could be even higher for children. Kim adds: ‘More recent research from Imperial College highlighted that ultra processed foods make up a considerably high proportion of children’s diets. More than 60 percent of calories on average came from UPFs. The higher the proportion of UPFs they consume, the greater the risk of becoming overweight or obese.’

Some experts believe lots of us are actually addicted to UPFs: a recent review found ‘ultra-processed food addiction’ occurs in 14 percent of adults and 12 percent of children. So what are the potential health risks?

‘Research has not only linked UPF consumption to higher risks of obesity, but also high blood pressure and high cholesterol,’ says Kim. New research published in the BMJ has linked ultra-processed foods with a higher risk of 23 health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and metabolic problems.

Studies have linked high consumption of UPFs with mental illnesses too. Data from a study into women’s health from the US suggests that those who consume more UPFs, particularly those containing artificial sweeteners, are more likely to suffer from depression. ‘Experimental studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may trigger the transmission of particular signalling molecules in the brain that are important for mood,’ the authors concluded.

One of the most comprehensive deep dives into the topic comes from Dr Chris van Tulleken, whose book Ultra-Processed People investigates the ‘new age of eating’, exploring how UPFs are really damaging our bodies. ‘This is an emergency,’ Van Tulleken has said. ‘We need to think about the big food companies in the same way we do the tobacco companies.’ He also believes there should be national guidance stating UPFs are strongly associated with ‘inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease, metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, depression and anxiety, obesity and early death.’

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make (4)


Are All UPFs Bad For Us?

New advice from experts and government advisors argues that not all processed food is necessarily bad, highlighting the risks in ‘demonising’ all UPFs. While they agreed that high-sugar foods like cake and biscuits are nutrient-poor, the team stressed things like wholegrain breakfast cereal, wholemeal bread and yoghurts can have a place in a healthy diet.

Prof Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency, said: ‘It’s really important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Many components are there for safety reasons. Additives that reduce the growth of bacteria or fungi have a really critical role in protecting consumers and extending the life of a product.’ He added: ‘We need to be driven by the science base and not have a knee-jerk reaction which treats everything the same.’

This approach was stressed by scientists from University College London, who argue it’s too simplistic to brand all UPFs as very bad. Some foods that are technically classed as UPFs could also fall into the ‘healthy’ category based on factors like their fat, saturated fat and salt content.

How Can We Reduce Our Intake Of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs)?

Having knowledge of what they are and being able to spot them is crucial, says Kim. ‘Awareness is key. Once you’re aware of the defining characteristics of UPFs, it won’t take you long to identify them in the supermarket. Simply put: the less we eat, the better.’ Her top tips for avoiding them are:

  • ‘Choose single ingredient foods as much as possible.
  • Cook from scratch where you can.
  • Read labels – look at the ingredients lists to know what you’re consuming.
  • Make swaps. For example, plain, natural, organic yoghurt is a much better option than processed low fat yoghurts.’

Kim is a nutritionist with over 15 years of experience, find out more at kim-pearson.com

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make (2024)


Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): How To Identify Them and Simple Swaps You Can Make? ›

Ultra-processed foods are often high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. In the UK, look out for a "traffic light" label on the packaging. It could be "fresh food" but have a long shelf life, because of preservatives. Check the labels for ingredients like sodium benzoate, nitrate and sulphite, BHA and BHT.

What are ultra-processed foods and how do you identify them? ›

Examples of ultra-processed food
  • Packaged snacks. Pre-packaged snacks such as chips, cookies and crackers can be a lifesaver in a hurry, but they aren't always the healthiest option. ...
  • Packaged bread. ...
  • Cereal. ...
  • Processed meat. ...
  • Condiments. ...
  • Sweetened and alcoholic beverages. ...
  • Candy and desserts.
Sep 29, 2023

How to tell if a food is UPF? ›

Ultra-processed foods are often high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. In the UK, look out for a "traffic light" label on the packaging. It could be "fresh food" but have a long shelf life, because of preservatives. Check the labels for ingredients like sodium benzoate, nitrate and sulphite, BHA and BHT.

What are examples of UPF foods? ›

Examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yogurts, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.

How do you identify processed foods? ›

Look for these 9 red flags to identify food that is ultra-processed
  1. 1More than three ingredients.
  2. 2Thickeners, stabilizers or emulsifiers.
  3. 3Added sugars and sweeteners.
  4. 4Ingredients that end in '-ose'
  5. 5Artificial or 'fake' sugars.
  6. 6Health claims.
  7. 7Low-sugar promises.
  8. 8Instant and flavored varieties.
Jan 2, 2024

Is pizza ultra-processed? ›

What we eat has a big impact on our health, and ultra-processed foods like candy, soft drinks, pizza and chips do not contain enough of the beneficial nutrients that the body requires. The more ultra-processed foods we eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of our diet. But here's the good news.

Is peanut butter ultra-processed? ›

You could just crush up peanuts and get peanut butter that's minimally processed. You could add salt, sugar, and oil and get a processed version. Or some of the peanut butter you find at the store could contain preservatives or emulsifiers, and that makes it ultraprocessed.

Are Heinz baked beans ultra-processed? ›

Most baked beans fall into the ultra processed category as they are bolstered with modified starch, and sometimes glucose-fructose syrup as well.

Is sliced bread a UPF? ›

These are either industrially processed in a factory or include ingredients not typically used in the home, such as additives like emulsifiers. Since most sliced bread is made using the Chorleywood process, this would technically make it an ultra-processed food.

Is canned tuna ultra-processed? ›

Packaged foods, like tinned vegetables or tuna, have been processed but not in a way that is highly detrimental to health. Tinned vegetables can be a quick, convenient and cheap way to consume fibre and nutrients. Tuna - as well as other tinned fish - can be a good source of protein and B vitamins.

Are potato chips UPF? ›

Despite the lack of consensus among U.S. nutritionists about the definition of a UPF, the buzz around this topic continues. More frustrating is that even though most chips and fries do not meet the widely used definition of UPFs, they are often mentioned in a story or shown in an image alongside articles about UPFs.

Is Greek yogurt ultra-processed? ›

Dairy foods that undergo further processing and use of sugars or additives such as flavoured milk and yoghurt may be considered ultra-processed.

How to know if something is UPF? ›

UPF: Some clothing makers provide UPF labels, which indicate exactly how much of the sun's rays the garment can shield. Look for our Seal of Recommendation whenever you shop. Coverage: The more skin your outfit covers, the better your protection. Whenever possible, choose long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts.

How to tell if food is upf? ›

A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group, which is to say, either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or ...

Are cheerios ultra-processed food? ›

Cheerios are considered a processed food

Although Cheerios are made with whole grain oats, which sets them apart from other cereals made with more refined grains like corn flour or white rice, many Cheerios varieties are packed with unhealthy ingredients like cane sugar, corn syrup, and preservatives ( 13 ).

Are canned tomatoes ultra-processed? ›

Foods can be categorised as minimally or unprocessed (for example, tomatoes), processed (tinned tomatoes) and ultra-processed (store-bought tomato pasta sauce).

What are the 5 most processed foods to avoid? ›

Here is a short list of some unhealthy processed foods to avoid:
  • Sugary beverages such as sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks and soft drinks.
  • Deli meats, hot dogs and sausages.
  • Frozen pizza and frozen meals.
  • Packaged snacks such as chips, cookies, crackers and baked goods.
  • Most breakfast cereals.
  • Canned or instant soups.
Dec 22, 2021

Which is an example of an ultra-processed food? ›

Ultra-processed foods are tasty, cheap, and convenient. Unfortunately, most are high in salt, sugar, or additives. Candy, soda, and salty snacks are examples of ultra-processed foods with the most additives. Eating an excessive amount of these foods is linked to heart disease and cancer.

What is the number one unhealthiest food? ›

1. Bacon
  • Fried food. ...
  • Potato chips. ...
  • Added sugars. ...
  • Processed oils. Try to cut processed oils out of your diet as much as possible. ...
  • Hydrogenated fats. This category of fats lurks in many packaged foods and fast food products. ...
  • Refined carbohydrates. Advertisem*nt. ...
  • Breakfast sausages. Advertisem*nt. ...
  • Processed meat. Advertisem*nt.
Jan 30, 2022

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