Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, colourings and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf life.
Used to extend the shelf life of food and prevent spoilage. Some common preservatives include sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and calcium propionate. Colours are used to make food more visually appealing and to give it a more appetizing appearance. Some common colours used in food are:
Chlorophylls and chlorophyllins (E40): Green colors derived from plants, used in canned vegetables, soups, and sauces
These have surged in popularity since the UK ‘sugar tax’ was introduced in 2018, and have been classed by the World Health Organisation as unhelpful to weight loss. We now know they impact insulin response in the body despite the lack of calories. Typical labels include:
These are food additives that are used to combine substances that would not normally mix, such as oil and water, but can have a detrimental effect on the gut lining. Here are some examples of emulsifiers and their applications in food:
Lecithin (E322): A natural emulsifier found in egg yolks, soy, liver, peanuts, and wheat germ. It is used in chocolate products, baked goods, and sauces.
Carrageenan (E407): A natural emulsifier derived from red seaweed. It is used in dairy-based ice cream, frozen desserts, cream, and flavoured milk.
Guar gum and Xanthan Gum - often used in sandwich fillers, spreads, mayonnaise and sauces.
Examples include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, flavoured yogurts, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks. In recent years, food marketing has focussed on vegan and high protein labels which can carry a misconception of being healthy, when they are still highly processed.
Ultra-processed foods often contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar leaving less room in our diets for more nutritious foods. It’s also been suggested that the additives in these foods could be responsible for negative health effects. When we react to foods and feel there is an ‘ intolerance’ it can be difficult to work out what is the culprit when there are multiple ingredients, so any start in reducing reliance on packaged foods will help.
Simple swaps to get started
Instead of flavoured yogurts with added sugar or sweeteners, choose plain yogurt and add your own chopped fresh, frozen or dried fruit or honey.
Have porridge in the morning with fruit and nuts instead of sugary low-fibre breakfast cereals.
Invest in some BPA free tupperware and start your packed lunches with leftovers or soups.
Batch cook your evening meals such as chilli and pasta sauces to avoid relying on ready meals when time is short.
Invest in mixed nuts and seeds, trail mix or flapjacks for snacking instead of being tempted at the local shop where we are bombarded with confectionary.
Avoid drinking your calories; soft drinks, energy drinks, flavoured coffees and alcohol, are laden with non-natural products and often high in calories, causing a blood sugar response, resulting in more cravings to eat.