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Feeling Confused About Ultra Processed Foods?

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is increasingly used in research on diet and health, with headlines suggesting consuming these foods leads to increased risk of disease. Yet, a new survey from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) suggests that people find it difficult to distinguish between foods classed as ultra-processed and other processed foods.

The survey, undertaken by YouGov on behalf of BNF, reveal

s that 70 percent of British adults had not heard of the term ultra-processed food before taking the survey, but 36 percent state they are trying to cut back on some kind of processed foods.

The new BNF research aims to analyse people’s understanding of processed and ultra-processed foods and the role they play in the diet. The term ultra-processed foods is usually based on a food classification method called NOVA which defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives.

More than one fifth of the survey respondents (21 percent) say that a healthy, balanced diet shouldn't include any ultra-processed foods, however the survey reveals a lack of understanding of which foods are included in the ultra-processed definition. When given a list of foods and asked which they would classify as ultra-processed, just eight percent selected canned baked beans, nine percent low fat fruit yogurt, 12 percent ice cream, 19 percent pre-packaged sliced bread from a supermarket, 26 percent ready-made pasta sauces, and 28 percent breakfast cereals with added sugar, despite all of the above being classed according to NOVA as ultra-processed.

Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation, comments: “There's an increasing amount of research on ultra-processed foods and health, and the term is being used more than ever. But most people still have not heard of the term and are not clear about what it includes. Many foods that would be classified as ultra-processed may not be recognised as such and, while many ultra-processed foods are not healthy options, this isn't always the case. As well as less healthy items like crisps, cakes, sweets, chocolate and sugary drinks, which many of us need to cut back on, ultra-processed foods can include sliced wholemeal bread and vegetable-based pasta sauces which can be a useful part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

69 percent of those surveyed say they agree with the statement that it's better to cook from scratch than use processed foods but 53 percent agree that a healthy, balanced diet can include some processed foods and 49 percent say that processed foods can be convenient and help save time. 26 percent agree with the statement that it is not possible to cook all their meals from scratch.

Stanner continues: “There can be a very judgmental attitude towards processed foods, implying that you cannot be eating well if your diet is not made up entirely from 'real food' that is cooked from scratch. But, most foods we eat are processed in some way and processed foods help a lot of us to prepare meals within the limited time and budget we have. And just because something is homemade does not necessarily make it a healthy option – recipes vary widely from the very healthy to the very indulgent. What we should really be concerned about is how healthy a food is overall, and the balance of our diet as a whole.

The survey reveals 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.

Stanner adds: “Some ultra-processed foods, such as confectionary, fried snacks, cakes and sugary drinks, are already recognised by nutrition professionals as foods to limit, however this does not mean that all processed foods should be demonised. Looking at food labels, in particular at sugar, salt and saturated fat content, can be valuable in helping us to make healthier choices. In addition, we need to encourage food manufacturers to produce foods that are healthier, ensuring that healthier food choices are easier, more convenient and affordable for people to make.”

Should you want to read more on the topic and find out about the BNF’s work, funding and governance, this can be found here.

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