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You may have heard of the term ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and some of you might be wondering exactly what they are.

The easiest explanation is that they are foods that you would be unable to make at home. They contain substances extracted from food, along with flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers and other chemicals to prolong shelf-life and improve texture.

A decade ago, the NOVA food system was developed to differentiate between types of processed foods:

  • NOVA1 – Unprocessed/minimally processed foods. These wholefoods are fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts/seeds and fresh meat/fish, including frozen and dried.

  • NOVA2 - Processed ingredients. Oil, butter, honey, sugar, salt.

  • NOVA3 - Processed foods that have changed because of processing to lengthen lifespan. Canned meat/fish/fruit, artisanal bread, cheese & cured meats. They’re generally required as part of a balanced diet.

  • NOVA4 - UPFs contain little to no whole food. Are packaged & often high in sugar, salt, altered fats, refined protein, and fibre removed.

UPFs are designed by the food industry for profit and to keep you coming back for more. They distinctly lack the essential nutrients found in whole foods and have minimal nutritional value. 

Cheap, convenient and fast to prepare, their high sugar and salt content are addictive and often highly palatable, and are typically aggressively marketed. Take for instance, those pesky Pringles – I’m sure most of us have all fallen foul of the “once you pop, you can stop” slogan! 

It will come as no surprise that the most common UPFs are fizzy drinks, sweet and savoury industrially-produced snacks, ice-cream, and reconstituted meat products like sausages & ham. However, you may not realise that most supermarket breads (including “freshly baked”!), breakfast cereals, “fake meat” vegan products, pies, pizzas, burgers, fruit yoghurts & juice also come under this category.

Although not everyone agrees completely with the NOVA classification, what is clear is UPFs are bad news for your health. They are not only linked with obesity but also lead to increased inflammation in the body, which could contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, IBS, depression and cognitive decline. Stripped of their natural fibre, they don’t support a healthy microbiome, known to significantly control unwanted inflammation and support whole-body health.

Tips to avoid UPFs:

  • Eat fresh, locally produced whole foods wherever possible. Reduce the amount of packaged and processed foods you buy.

  • Read food labels and avoid or limit those products that list more than 5 or 6 ingredients.  

  • Steer away from fresh food that has already been marinated, battered or with added sauces.  Make them yourself, if you can!

  • Avoid fruit juice and eat the whole fruit.  Even freshly-squeezed orange juice will miss out on all the important fibre it gives.

  • Buy plain yoghurt and add your own fruit and compotes.

  • Avoid most breakfast cereals and opt for minimally processed cereals such as oats.  If you can, make your own granola/muesli and keep in sealed jars – it will be much cheaper too.

  • If you can’t avoid supermarket bread, always look at the list of ingredients.  If you can’t pronounce them, it’s probably best avoided!  Choose wholegrain where possible and look for the level of carbohydrate: fibre ratio which should be around 5:1 (some are up to 20:1).  Sourdough is a good choice but make sure it’s real (the majority in stores is not authentic – genuine sourdough is made using nothing other than just flour, water and salt).

  • Use the “Yuka” app which scans bar codes to get clear information on the health impact of the products you consume.

It’s often hard to navigate the maze of dietary advice, and with a busy lifestyle it can be even harder to put good intentions into practice.  This is where I come in.  I can provide you with an individual, realistic and achievable strategy to improve your diet and optimise your health.


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