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The role of ultra-processed foods in nutrition

“Ultra-processed foods” (UPFs) are usually associated with what we may refer to as ‘bad’ food. In this era of mindful eating and healthy diets, processed food is almost always the first thing individuals cut out when trying to eat better, but are they really bad for health? When it comes to health and fitness, many want a ‘quick fix’, a way of losing weight quickly or improving in the gym overnight, and with this comes unhealthy choices and diets that just aren’t sustainable in the long run. Grouping foods into ‘good or bad’ can be misleading and on a lot of occasions result in a misinterpreted view of what we should and should not be consuming as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Understanding the potential benefits of foods, such as those categorised as ultra-processed, and where these fit into a person’s diet, can help people to make a more informed choice on what sustainable, healthy food choices work for their needs.

What are ultra-processed foods?

While the first image that pops into people’s minds may be food with an ingredient list minutes long and lots of words that they’ve never heard of, UPFs are classified as ‘a formulation of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (Harvard School of Public Health., 2019). These foods are grouped depending on the process and degree of processing in which they are made, in what is referred to as the NOVA classification (Petrus et al., 2021). Many foods classified as ultra-processed are fortified with vitamins and minerals that may have otherwise been overlooked in the diet and rather than seeing all UPFs as harmful to health, it’s worth considering the purpose of the processing involved (Harvard School of Public Health., 2019). While in some cases it may mean improving flavour and lack a nutritional benefit, other products are processed to extend shelf life, increase nutrient bioavailability, or even for the dietary inclusion of specific needs, such as difficulty swallowing or chewing.

Ultra-processed foods and health

When it comes to gut health, UPFs are considered less beneficial due to the high unsaturated fat and sugar content, as well as added colours and flavourings, which could lead to inflammation of the gut and reduce in microbial diversity. However, does that really apply to all UPFs? When looking on the other hand, the added fortification of fibre in some products promotes an optimal digestive system and can help to maintain bowel function. As well as fibre, other products can be supplemented with prebiotics and probiotics as a way of helping to maintain the balance of the gut microbiota, which in turn can enable these microbes to perform functions that can support wellbeing.

Within a plant-based diet, UPFs are a major contributor to protein consumption and typically provide up to 37% of a vegetarians daily total energy intake and 39.5% for that of vegans (Gehring et al., 2021). Meat-free alternatives, such as pea protein and soy protein products fall under the UPFs category while providing diets devoid of meat with nutrients they are more likely to be deficient in. The same applies to milk alternatives, which are typically fortified with calcium to facilitate the lack of dairy in the diet. The growing availability of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes makes vegetarian and vegans diets more convenient and affordable, as well as providing more environmentally sustainable alternatives to animal-based options.

Methods of processing - altering the nutritional profile of food?

Just like the technology on the latest smart phone, the processing methods involved in the production of food has advanced significantly over the last decade. Particularly the ability of processing methods to preserve the nutritional integrity of raw ingredients all the way through to the final product you see on the shelf (Heubbe and Rimbach., 2020). One practical example of this being the replacement of heat pasteurization with high pressure processing (HPP) as a non-thermal method that has the same ability to extend shelf life as the previous process while having little to no effect on the product’s nutritional quality (Heubbe and Rimbach., 2020). As the technology involved in food processing continues to advance, we are met with more innovative ways to improve the quality of food; making foods last longer and providing a higher nutrient bioavailability to help make a healthy diet more convenient, which is essential given the limited time individuals have to put toward preparing and cooking healthy meals.

Whilst the classification of dietary supplements in relation to ultra-processed foods is more complex, the addition of certain ingredients could lead to the label of “ultra-processed”. Where a supplement might obtain such a label, it is important to consider the complementary role it may play in supporting an individual’s nutrition. For example, oral nutrition supplements (ONS) are intended to contribute to an individual’s intake of certain nutrients and can also fall under the category of ultra-processed due to the methods in which they are fortified and produced (Wang et al., 2016). Deficiencies can have a detrimental effect on overall health, and if procuring an adequate amount through a food-first approach is not feasible, individuals may turn to supplementation to avoid health implications. As such, this is an example of where processing can play a complementary role in nutrition.

The takeaway

Too much of anything can be bad for health, and the same applies to UPFs. A balanced approach to nutrition means understanding that food does not necessarily need to be classified as good or bad, and while some UPFs may be less beneficial to health, others are produced with the purpose of adding nutritive value. UPFs can be included as part of a well-rounded, balanced diet and individuals should be supported to make informed choices to ensure their nutritional needs are met.


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