What’s the deal with Processed Food?

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to heart disease, increase risk of death, metabolic syndrome and increased risk of cancer.  So, what does the research show and is it safe to eat them?


What are ultra-processed foods?

The name comes from classifications used by the food industry and refers to foods modified by chemical processes, with added flavours, colours, and emulsifiers.  Ultra-processed foods include savoury snacks, reconstituted meat products, ready-to-heat meals, white bread, sugary breakfast cereals and soft drinks.  The other categories used are ‘processed foods’ and ‘minimally processed foods’.  However, these categories can be unhelpful when used to indicate the nutritional properties of a food.  For example, both bacon and wholegrain bread are classified as processed, but whilst evidence shows that processed meats such as bacon increase your risk of bowel cancer, wholegrain bread is an excellent source of fibre and can help protect from bowel cancer.


Is the research clear?

The authors of the research admit that their studies are not definite proof of harm, but point to a possible link.  Recent studies followed thousands of people for up to a decade and used food diaries to assess their intakes.  Unfortunately, self-reported food diaries are not the most accurate when collecting data for studies and although the authors tried to take other factors into account, such as smoking and exercise, they are unable to prove cause and effect (e.g. that ultra-processed food cause heart disease), only a possible link.


What should we eat?

If you are short on time, travelling or feeling unwell then processed foods can be a saviour and you shouldn’t feel bad for needing to rely on them for some meals.  When eating processed food use the following tips to make better choices:


Top tips:

  • Read the labels – look for products with less than 5g sugar per 100g, less than 0.3g salt (0.1g sodium) per 100g and less than 3g total fat per 100g.  Plus, look for foods that have at least 3g fibre per 100g.

  • Even though they are classified as processed - tinned and frozen fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses are a great source of nutrients (choose the ones with no added sugar or salt).

  • Keep portion sizes moderate.  The research indicated that the links with health may be due to people being more likely to overeat ultra-processed foods, so be sure to watch your portions.

  • Choose products with the least ingredients in the ingredients list.

  • A ready-meal can be greatly improved by including extra fresh or frozen vegetables on the side. 


Ruth Harvey