The piles of multicoloured packets, boxes and bags in Amanda Duddridge’s weekly supermarket shop are typical of most modern families in the UK, with frozen pizzas, crisps, squash, flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals and cakes.
Like many parents, Amanda, 36, really wants her family to eat healthily — the teaching assistant from South Wales and her partner, Grafton, 38, a customer service adviser for British Gas, have two daughters, Esmee, eight, and Elvie, three.
Amanda buys rice cakes, brown rice, frozen peas and rice cakes and then chooses Quorn nuggets to cut down on their meat intake. The girls are encouraged to snack on bananas, grapes and apples.
She is aware, however, that processed food seems to be increasing in her shopping cart.
Amanda buys brown rice cakes and rice cakes and freezes peas. She also purchases Quorn Nuggets as a way to cut down on meat. Her daughter encourages her girls to snack on apples, bananas, and grapes.
‘I used to be really good at cooking family meals from scratch but there comes a point in life where you lose enthusiasm to come up with new healthy recipes for two fussy children — one of whom eats hardly anything,’ she says.
‘I was ending up with enough waste to fill four food compost bags a week, so I stopped cooking stir-fries, casseroles and soups. Now I buy food that I know the family will eat.’
That means you will find convenience foods with a longer list of ingredients than are available in the kitchen.
Known as ultra-processed foods (or UPFs), they’re increasingly coming under the spotlight, with a growing body of evidence linking their high consumption with the rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.
Even if you think you eat healthily, UPFs might have crept into your diet in the form of ‘low-fat’ or ‘vegan’ health foods.
A UPF refers to a processed food/drink that includes a lot of chemically modified ingredients. These chemicals include flavourings, taste modifiers and texturising and colouring agent.
A lot of UPFs have high levels of sugar, fat, and/or salt. This makes them appealing, and often they come with a very long shelf-life.
Unsurprisingly, families like Amanda’s find more and more UPFs creeping into their shopping trollies. According to a study done by Imperial College London and published in JAMA Pediatrics, British children are now getting 60 percent of their daily calories from these foods.
If children are the worst ‘offenders’, adults aren’t too far behind, with an estimated one in five British adults eating a diet that is 80 per cent UPF.
UPFs can be consumed occasionally (up to two per day). According to Dr Anthony Fardet (a senior researcher scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in nutrition and preventive diets), health problems can begin to develop if you consume more UPFs than you should and more often.
‘UPFs are less nutrient-dense than “real” food,’ he explains. ‘They contain many additives which may have an as yet unknown cocktail of effects.
‘They are also generally too salty, too sweet and too fatty. You can also add the industrial processing impact [such as puffing],’ he says, referring to the way the processing breaks down the natural structure matrix of foods, effectively ‘pre-chewing’ them, which means many UPFs have a very high glycaemic index that can send blood sugars soaring.
‘The heavy processing strips away the nutrients and fibre in food and imbalances the natural act of eating and the metabolic impact of any nutrients,’ he adds.
‘I was ending up with enough waste to fill four food compost bags a week, so I stopped cooking stir-fries, casseroles and soups. Now I buy food that I know the family will eat.’ And that invariably means convenience foods that have a long list of ingredients more familiar to a laboratory than a kitchen
It is hard to resist UPFs. Research pioneered by Kevin Hall, a UPF-based nutritionist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that UPFs can make us eat nearly 60 calories per minute (or 500 more daily). These calories are consumed 30% faster than food that is not processed.
What is the significance of this? This is in addition to the risk of weight gain. A study by Imperial College London last year showed that UPFs can be linked with serious diseases.
Research from Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo has shown that an excessive intake of UPF (or more than 56.8% of the diet) can increase the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
According to a 2019 study, people with high consumption of UPFs had a 62% greater chance of dying prematurely from any cause than those who consume less. The risk of dying increased 18% for each serving of UPF.
Dr Fardet mentions work at the Aesku.Kipp Institute (Wendelsheim), Germany. There, researchers suggested that there is a correlation between the rising incidence of autoimmune diseases such as coeliac.
Dr Fardet says there may be a stronger effect. He points out that studies, including one published in European Psychiatry (2015), have found that colouring agents increase hyperactivity risk in children.
There is concern that UPFs might affect the brain, making us want them more, with researchers in Spain last year suggesting they were ‘a gateway to addiction’.
In a unique experiment in 2021, TV doctor Chris van Tulleken went on a UPF-only diet for a month, and even after this short time there were changes in his brain that meant he was effectively ‘primed’ to seek out UPFs.
Dr Fardet argues that the impact of these products is generally worse for the younger generation: ‘Children are highly targeted by aggressive TV marketing in a bid to make them lifelong customers because that’s where the profits lie. The earlier they start to be consumers of UPFs, the more chance they’ve got of being affected by chronic diseases at a younger age.’
Just how easy it is for these foods to become a major part of our diets is highlighted by Amanda’s typical weekly shop, which we asked Dr Fardet to analyse.
Grafton and Grafton eat around five meals a day, while their children eat around ten. UPFs make up almost half of Grafton’s diet.
The danger in ‘good’ options
Amanda’s shopping trolley shows her well-intentioned efforts to eat healthily — low-fat cheese spread, diet drinks, rice cakes in place of biscuits and vegetarian meat alternatives to keep a lid on meat consumption.
But Dr Fardet warns foods with ‘healthy’ labels such as ‘enriched with’ or ‘low-fat’ can be among the most heavily processed as manufacturers combine chemicals to replace fat, sugar or the nutrients stripped out whilst processing.
Vegan and vegetarian substitutes are increasingly popular as more people switch to a plant-based diet in the belief that it’s healthier, choosing fake ‘meat’ pasties, bacon, burgers, chorizo sausages, ham and ‘chicken’ nuggets.
However, Dr Fardet claims that many plant milks and fake meats are among the most harmful UPF offenders. They often contain high levels of protein and fibre compounds, as well as many other additives such as stabilizers, sugar and flavouring, as well as many vitamins and minerals.
The majority of ‘fake meats’ are heavily processed, with many made from soya protein or wheat gluten, which goes through a complex manufacturing process involving heat, acid or solvents, to create a meat-like texture. Double-fermentation creates an alternative to meat called Quorn. It is a process which produces a fungus with a structure that is similar to animal proteins. This is all before chemical preservatives and flavourings are added. Amanda’s Quorn nuggets, for instance, list 25 ingredients on the packet.
‘I worry about the rise of ultra ultra-processed foods such as fake meats,’ says Dr Fardet.
‘It is too soon for epidemiological studies to link consumption with chronic disease risk, but I have grave concerns about this “edible chemistry” and the effects of so drastically altering the food matrix. We don’t yet know what regular consumption is doing to the body.’
Reduce your dependence on UPFs
Dr Fardet warns that the most dangerous UPFs are ones with a lot of added ingredients. This includes fizzy drinks and salty snacks.
He points at the sweetened cereal, the white sliced bread, cakes, biscuits, crisps, pizzas, squash, diet cola and curly fries in Amanda’s shopping.
The curly fries that Amanda’s daughters love, for instance, might be made of 81 per cent potato, but Dr Fardet highlights the fact that they are ‘artificialised’ with five ultra-processed ingredients including potato starch, maize starch, yeast extract, disodium diphosphate and dextrose.
The children’s orange squash contains citric acid, sodium citrate, flavourings, cellulose gum, sucrose acetate isobutyrate, glycerol esters of wood rosins and carotenes.
Grafton’s ‘meat feast’ pizza contains more than 30 ingredients, including diphosphates and triphosphates (added to reduce acidity and improve texture).
A complex mix of stabilisers and emulsifiers is used to make Mexican fajitas for family members on special occasions.
Regular family meals include fish fingers and chicken goujons. They also enjoy prawn cocktails made from tapioca starch and sunflower oil as well as 11 different flavourings.
Unsurprisingly, Amanda is shocked by Dr Fardet’s analysis: ‘Yes, I was concerned that we were eating too much industrially processed food, but I hadn’t realised it could have such a dramatic impact on our health,’ she says.
‘I’m lucky that the children don’t show any signs of hyperactivity, although they haven’t always been great sleepers and they do seem to lack energy at times.
‘I had gestational diabetes when I was pregnant with Elvie and I’ve been told that puts us both at greater risk of getting type 2 diabetes, so I am concerned about the impact of the food we eat on our health,’ she adds.
‘I know I must try to stop buying it, but it’s so difficult when you’ve got fussy eaters. This is even more difficult when the real thing is expensive. It’s also heartbreaking to cook from scratch and then have your food rejected. I hate food waste — sometimes it is just easier to give the children what they want.’
It’s perhaps unrealistic to expect busy families like Amanda’s to abandon all processed food and to start cooking everything from scratch. However, Dr Fardet says a good place to start is by aiming for two portions a day — his ‘maximum precautionary threshold’, and ideally, not every day.
Then, he recommends looking for alternatives that have a shorter ingredient list.
Dr Fardet states that anything with more than five ingredients has a 75% chance of becoming a UPF. It is best to avoid any product with at least five ingredients.
Dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker suggests picking your battles, first aiming to cut back on processed snacks — an additional UPF that only dulls the appetite, making it more likely that the children will refuse real food — such as crisps, sweets and biscuits and switching the whole family to wholemeal or seeded bread (‘children are more likely to follow their parents’ behaviour, so it is important to lead from the front’).
She also recommends gradually adjusting the children’s expectations for sweet foods by mixing their ultra-processed cereal 50:50 with less processed Weetabix.
She adds that getting the whole family involved in planning, shopping and cooking one meal (perhaps tacos or homemade pizza) each week helps to increase engagement and reduce reliance on UPFs, but adds: ‘I appreciate it’s a difficult balance.’
Below, Sarah Schenker offers more tips and tricks for diet.
Popcorn is a better option than crisps. You could also substitute for squash juice.
Switch to salty snacks and posh popcorn and crisps.
Choose instead ‘natural’ crisps with a minimal number of ‘real’ ingredients (Kettle Chips, £1.25 for 100g, contain potato, sunflower oil and sea salt) or popcorn (Metcalfe’s sea salt popcorn, £1 for 870g, contains popped corn, rapeseed oil and sea salt).
Plant milk for organic or cow’s milk: Unless you have a reason to avoid cow’s milk (for instance, you are lactose intolerant), there should be room in your fridge for it as a non-UPF option. You may prefer to use plant milks. Some are very processed.
Switch to salty snack options for popcorn and crisps
Alpro soya (£1.65 for 1 litre), for instance, contains sugar, salt, flavouring, stabilisers and acidity regulators in addition to soya beans and added calcium and vitamins. But the organic version of Alpro soya (£1.80 for 1 litre) contains just soya beans and water.
Fake meat burger with lentil burger. Vegan products that look and taste like meat have been highly processed and filled with chemicals. It is better to eat meat, or to get non-meat protein naturally from plant sources like chickpeas.
For plain yoghurt, substitute flavoured yogurts with plain. Yoghurts that are marketed to children can be loaded with added sugars and other ingredients. It is better to purchase full-fat plain yogurt (which tastes more sweet than low-fat), and add fresh or frozen fruits or some jam.
CHCHOCOLATE-BASED Cereals for a 50/50 MIX They also have less demanding chewing textures, which means they’re easy to overeat and won’t keep you feeling full for long. Instead, sprinkle a handful of sweetened cereal over minimally processed Shredded Wheat bitesize (£2.60 for 720g), or Weetabix (£4 for 48).
WHITE SLICED BREAD: Artisan bread is made from white sliced bread. It has been highly processed and contains many additives that enhance its taste and texture as well as extend its shelf-life. Fresh bread made by an independent bakery will cost you a bit more than one that has been processed. Sourdough is usually less processed.
You might notice a faster deterioration of bread without preservatives. Slice and freeze the loaf, then defrost as needed.
Squash for juice: There’s nothing natural about ‘fruit squash’. Even if the juice is labeled 50% fruit, it will contain sugar as well chemical flavourings, preservatives, and additives.
WAFFLES, CURLY FRIES OR OVEN CHIPS: Potato shapes are very appealing because they are made from cooked mashed potatoes. Then the potato is molded and coated with a variety of flavor-enhancing chemicals. Pick up a bag of old-fashioned oven chips (McCain ‘naked’ oven chips are just potatoes and sunflower oil, £2 for 900g), sprinkle them with salt and be prepared to wait a little longer for them to cook.
BIG-BRAND BISCUITS FOR MORE NATURAL ALTERNATIVES: Most branded biscuits and cakes count as ultra-processed foods (UPFs) — check the ingredients list — and ‘healthy’ granola bars are no better. Instead, aim to pay a little more for something with ‘real’ (recognisable) ingredients. Try Nairn’s fruit and seed oatcakes (£1.45 for six pouches of three oatcakes) or shortbread (Sainsbury’s Highland all-butter shortbread 65p for 200g) or eat nuts (almonds or walnuts) instead.
Squash for juice: There’s nothing natural about ‘fruit squash’. Even if the juice is labeled 50% fruit, it will contain sugar as well chemical flavourings, preservatives, and additives. It is better to purchase plain juice, and then dilute it with water.
Flavored yoghurts instead of plain yoghurt. Yoghurts targeted at children are often packed with added sugars and other additives.