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What are Ultra Processed Foods and How Can We Eat Less of It?

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) have been the subject of significant negative attention in the health and wellness industry. But the question arises: is it truly necessary and feasible to completely eliminate them from our diets? Moreover, do we possess a comprehensive understanding of what qualifies as ultra-processed, and is there a defined “safe” threshold for consumption?

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it’s convenient to turn to UPF to save time and money. Yet, how do these convenient options impact our health? This blog aims to delve into this contentious issue, providing insights to help navigate the question of how much UPF consumption is optimal and how to reduce our consumption in our diet.

What are Ultra Processed Foods?

What exactly constitutes UPF? The term originates from the NOVA food classification system, which categorizes foods into four groups based on the extent of processing during production:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: This category encompasses natural foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts, and seeds, which remain unaltered or devoid of added ingredients.
  2. Processed ingredients: Examples include staple ingredients like salt, butter, sugar, or oils, typically used in cooking or food preparation.
  3. Processed foods: These are products created by combining items from groups 1 and 2, undergoing alterations akin to those achievable in home cooking. Examples include jam, pickles, tinned fruits and vegetables, homemade bread, and cheeses, many of which can contribute positively to a balanced diet.
  4. Ultra-processed foods: UPF are characterized by their extensive ingredient lists and to undergo industrial physical, chemical or biological processes. They are laden with additives and substances rarely utilized in home kitchens, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colors, and flavors. These products typically boast prolonged shelf lives. Examples include sausages, chicken nuggets, crisps, mass-produced bread, added sugar breakfast cereals, biscuits, added-sugar carbonated drinks, added sugar yogurts, instant soups, ice cream, vegetable/vegan patties (meat substitutes) and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.


processed food chart

Are Ultra Processed Foods Harmful?

UPF often contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar. Eating a large amount of them leaves little room for the more nutritious, less-processed foods in our diet. A number of studies in the Americas and Europe have linked eating more ultra-processed food to a number of health risks, including increases in obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and even dementia. Other research, including a pair of studies in the BMJ by researchers in Spain and France, has linked consuming ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of early death.

Scientists who research ultra-processed foods say that there seems to be something about the processing itself—not just the nutrition content—that makes them unhealthy. In one 2019 study that supports this idea, researchers split 20 people into two groups and controlled what they ate for two weeks. Each group ate meals with identical quantities of calories, sugar, fat, fiber, and micronutrients, but one group ate a diet of ultra-processed food, while the other ate unprocessed food. In the end, the people who ate ultra-processed food gained weight, while those who ate unprocessed food lost weight and had a healthier gut.

How Can we Identify Ultra Processed Foods?

If you look at the ingredient list and you see things that you wouldn’t use in home cooking, then that’s probably an ultraprocessed food.

And as previously mentioned, many are high in sugar, saturated fat, salt and calories, while being low in protein, fibre and essential vitamins and minerals. For these reasons, looking at the ingredients list on packages can be useful. A few simple label-reading tips to choose healthier foods and drinks can be located here.

If you find five or more ingredients – as well as ingredients you don’t recognise (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils and hydrolysed proteins as well as artificial food additives expressed as numbers, alphanumeric codes or chemical compounds) – chances are you’re dealing with an ultra-processed food.

Consider the transformation of whole oranges as an example of the difference in processing foods:

  1. Unprocessed/minimally processed: Whole oranges are simply peeled and segmented or freshly squeezed for consumption.
  2. Processed: Whole oranges are sliced, excess juice is drained, and slices are dried in an oven or dehydrator for preservation and later consumption.
  3. Ultra-processed: Whole oranges undergo industrial processing, where they are washed, mechanically squeezed to extract juice while removing pulp, oils, and oxygen (to prevent vitamin C oxidation). The juice undergoes pasteurization to deactivate enzymes and eliminate potential pathogens. Artificial additives like preservatives, colors, and sweeteners are introduced. This is the type of orange juice typically found on store shelves. Such intensive manufacturing allows store-bought juice to be stored in large tanks for up to a year before packaging and hitting supermarket shelves.

How to minimise Ultra Processed Foods in our Diet

Cooking at home goes a long way toward reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods. Restaurants (especially fast-food restaurants) are notorious for tinkering with their recipes to achieve a certain flavor, which could involve using less-than-nutrient-dense ingredients.

However, in some cases, getting unprocessed, whole food isn’t that simple, whether it’s an issue of affordability, availability, or accessibility.

Still, you can likely make small changes to tweak the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet. Consider some nutritious health swaps and become aware of the difference between ‘healthy’ processed foods and ultra processed foods.

Here are our top simple tips to help reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods:

  • Where possible, opt for wholefood items and ingredients in place of ultra-processed foods by shopping in the vegetable/fruit/meat/dairy sections rather than the middle isles of the supermarket where most ultra-processed foods are located.
  • Accessing cheap and sustainable healthy foods doesn’t always come easy! If fresh food is not available or affordable, even looking for less processed alternatives with a higher nutrient content can be beneficial. For example, instead of selecting white bread, select whole-wheat bread with minimal ingredients. Comparing the salt content of various breads in the supermarket and checking for the presence of emulsifiers can be helpful tricks. You could also swap flavoured yoghurt containing additives for plain or natural yoghurt. And for an extra boost of nutrients and sweetness, top with your favourite fresh or frozen fruits.
  • In many cases, frozen and canned vegetables are nutritious and affordable options. If opting for canned or tinned varieties (e.g. canned tomatoes, tinned corn), take care to select products that are ‘reduced salt’ or have minimal or no salt and sugar added.
  • Another way to increase your intake of healthier foods and nutrients, with the added benefit of decreased prices (and even tastier fresh foods!), is to buy and eat fruits and vegetables that are in season.


Rather than trying to cut out ultra-processed foods entirely, consider how you can reduce your intake and how they can be included as part of a balanced diet, which allows for convenience, enjoyment and pleasure as much as nutrition and health.

To help you identify the amount of UPF in your current diet:

Write down everything you ate yesterday and reflect on how much of it comes from ultra-processed foods. Are there any simple changes you could make to swap UPF for less-processed versions?

Food is more than fuel and filler — it’s a relationship. So, the next time you head to the grocery store, remember that not all “processed” foods are necessarily bad for you. Focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, or canned.

If after reading this you feel slightly alarmed and worried about your intake of processed foods, don’t worry! There is always time to make a change and with knowledge comes power. At Shanti-Som, our Wellness Experts are able to help devise personalised health plans to suit your current lifestyle or introduce a Detox program to help rebalance your body to a more neutral position.

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