Recent research indicates that men who eat ultra-processed foods in high quantities have a 29 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
“Try to avoid food products which contain more than 5 ingredients” Dr Rangan Chatterjee
In this article I take some examples of ultra-processed foods that you may not have considered and recommend how to find the “healthy” version.
What is ultra-processed food?
Ultra-processed Foods are the most heavily processed foods of the NOVA classification food groups. NOVA is a food categorization which categorizes food on the degree of industrial food processing.
These types of foods usually have the following attributes:
• Packaged, branded, convenient foods
• Prepared as ready to eat/drink/heat
• Have undergone an industrial process
• Have been hydrogenated
• Formulated from industrial ingredients and have little or no intact actual foods
• Typically consist of five or more ingredients
• You may not be able to recognize any of the words on the ingredient list.
• The ingredient list goes beyond just added salt and sugar. Texturizing agents, colourants, flavours, modified starches and proteins are common.
Processed vs ultra-processed foods
Processed food is any food that has been prepared by adding salt or sugar or prepped via simple industrial technology. Ultra-processed food is any food which has been prepared by a much more extensive industrial process.
For example, a food dessert with added sugar is a “processed food”. However, the same dessert with not only added sugar but also with texturizing agents and colourants added is an “ultra-processed food”.
Why are ultra-processed foods bad?
Ultra-processed Foods increase inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many diseases. (E.g., Cancer, heart-disease, alzheimer’s, diabetes and arthritis.)
Research has also linked these types of foods to impaired brain functioning and depression.
Let’s dive into some of the more recent study findings in relation to ultra-processed food below:
A study published in July indicates that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food links to a 25 percent higher risk of dementia and a 14 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
Accelerates biological aging
A study indicates that a diet of ultra-processed foods shortens the body’s telomeres and ages the cells.
A study published in 2019 indicates that the consumption of ultra-processed food increases the likeliness of an early death by 62%.
A 2018 study indicates that when a person increases ultra-processed food in their diet by just 10%, there is an increased risk of overall cancer. More specifically, an increase of breast cancer was found of more than 10%.
A 2021 study associates each 10 percent increase in the number of daily calories from ultra-processed foods to a 12% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
A 2019 study finds that ultra-processed food increases risks of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular diseases.
Type 2 diabetes
A study published in 2019 finds that for each 10% increase of ultra-processed food in the diet, there is then a 15% higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Excess calorie intake and weight gain
Another study links the diet also to a weight-gain of 1.7lbs (in a two-week timeframe). An important fact here is that participants did not rate the ultra-processed food as being any tastier than the un-processed.
5 examples of ultra-processed food that may surprise you
1. Milk – Dairy alternatives
Watch out for these! As even those portrayed as “healthy options” can contain questionable ingredients! Aim to avoid brands that contain the following:
• Artificial flavours
• Artificial sweeteners
• Added sugar (such as cane sugar)
Carrageenan is an additive derived from seaweed that has been linked to ulcers, inflammation, and other gastrointestinal problems.
There are brands that contain gums such as locust gum which are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. However, a small study some time ago highlights that locust gum can interfere with the absorption of vital nutrients – specifically iron, calcium and zinc. Another study shows that having this gum alongside a meal is associated with a delay in the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. (Can further aggravate any gut issues)
I recommend buying as natural as possible. My absolute favorite right now is Oatly – Organic Oat Drink. It contains 100% Swedish oats and I love it with coffee or with a bowl of porridge. This one contains just water, organic oats and sea salt.
Pip & Nut Almond Drink Unsweetened is on my list to try as these guys also keep the ingredient list as simple as possible – just water, almonds & sea salt.
2. Some hummus brands
I adore hummus. Many of the pre-packaged options however contain potassium sorbate. Potassium sorbate has the potential to affect our DNA. Research indicates that it can be “genotoxic” to human white blood cells. Another study indicates that mixed with vitamin C, it has potential to both cause mutagenicity and to damage DNA.
However low the risk of this happening, it is always best to stick to pure and simple ingredients. My recommendation is to make your own.
If you are a big garlic lover, I recommend the following recipe. Mix a couple of tablespoons of tahini, some olive oil, 5-7 cloves of garlic, the juice of two lemons, 1 can of chick-peas and some cumin in a food processor. You won’t regret. This is delicious!!
3. Cereals in the health shop/section
You may consider cereals in the health section to be healthier alternatives to the ones in the supermarket aisles? Not a chance. Some are healthier than others so pay attention.
Harvard Medical School recommends looking for cereals that contain
• Less than 5 grams of sugar
• Less than 200 milligrams of sodium
• Less than 150 calories per serving
They also recommend avoiding any brands that contain unidentifiable ingredients.
Oatmeal is always a great choice. This food promotes both health and healing. Go for Organic Steel cut oats as these have been less processed and as a result have the most health benefits.
Make the oatmeal dish more exciting by sprinkling on top additions such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seed, cinnamon, almonds and walnuts.
4. Pasta sauces in the health section
Watch out for Pasta Sauces in the Health Section. Although the firming agents and acidity regulators have been deemed safe, I would still recommend opting for brands with 100% natural ingredients.
Beware of excess salt in the ingredients list. I bought pesto from what I consider to be a “highly regarded” health brand from a health shop recently and was rather shocked to find the salt on the product was 3.3g! For pesto, the average salt target in the UK is 1.38g per 100g.
Again, the best plan is always to make your own. My brother makes the best & it’s so simple. He mixes fresh basil, garlic, lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, walnuts, water and nutritional yeast (for the vegan cheese addition) in a food processor & tastes so good!
5. Dark chocolate brands
Finally, I was disappointed to spot chemical flavorings and several other unfamiliar ingredients on the packet of my favorite brand of dark chocolate. After researching, all ingredients are deemed “safe” but just to be on the safe side, I have started to look around for more “natural brands”. They do exist and generally contain just cocoa mass, cocoa butter & coconut sugar.
I would recommend checking ingredient list and to buy as simple as possible. The higher the cocoa level, the lower the sugar (generally but not always, so advisable to check) and also the better the health benefits of the dark chocolate.