Foods linked obesity, heart disease and diabetes don’t sound particularly appetising… Dietitian Melissa Meier explains everything you need to know about ultra-processed foods, and why you should avoid them next time you’re doing the grocery shop.
You’ve heard wellness gurus, nutritionists and personal trainers talk about avoiding processed foods for years – but now, there’s a whole new category of processed foods to think about steering clear of.
I’m talking something called ultra-processed foods. Here’s what you need to know.
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What are ultra-processed foods?
Before we define ultra-processed foods, we need to talk about the different levels of food processing. Obviously, the first is unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which includes foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and milk. Then there’s processed culinary ingredients – things like oil, sugar and salt.
Then there’s processed foods, which are made by adding processed culinary ingredients to unprocessed or minimally processed foods. This is the category where canned beans, tinned tuna, salted nuts and the like fall.
And then there’s ultra-processed foods. Think: soft drink, lollies, pastries, sausages, instant soup… you get the idea. Chemical modification and industrial techniques are involved in the production of these foods. They often contain an extensive list of additives as well, like food colours, flavours and preservatives.
Are processed foods really *that* bad?
You might be surprised to hear that even as a dietitian, I’d eat processed foods every single day. In fact, some of the healthiest foods you can get your hands on are classed as ‘processed’ (case in point: tinned legumes). Of course, there are processed foods I’d encourage you to reduce your consumption of (bacon, tinned fruit in sugary syrup and chocolate coated nuts, for example) – my point is they’re not all that bad.
But there’s a clear distinction between processed and ultra-processed foods. The problem with ultra-processed foods (savoury packaged snacks, energy bars and cake, for example) is that they are typically nutrient-poor and often energy-dense. They are far from whole foods, often packed with sugar, salt and dangerous trans fats, on top of a tonne of additives.
Research has shown that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the greater your risk of obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and even some types of cancer. It’s pretty serious stuff. What’s more, ultra-processed foods aren’t good news for the planet, either, given the excess packaging and waste they produce.
The dietitians verdict on ultra-processed foods
A life without chocolate and ice cream is a life I don’t want to live – so I wouldn’t say ultra-processed foods have to be wiped off your menu for good. What I would encourage you to do, however, is minimise your intake of them by focusing on fresh, wholefoods from the five core food groups: fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, proteins and dairy or calcium-fortified alternatives. That way, you’ll reap all of the nutritional goodness of a well-balanced, healthy diet – but still get to enjoy a few treats every now and then without feeling guilty or deprived. After all, life is all about balance, right?
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.