Consumers should stick to working out whether foods contain nutrients rather than getting too hung up on ultra-processed foods (UPFs), experts have suggested.
A team of researchers said they believed it was more likely that the content of ultra-processed foods — such as being high in fat, sugar, and salt — was harmful to health rather than anything to do with the processing. They also said food safety should not be forgotten in the debate over UPFs, with some preservatives making food last longer and preventing the growth of bacteria.
Meanwhile, most breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals, which is especially important for children who might otherwise skip breakfast, they said.
Ultra-processed Foods Have Been Linked to Cancers and Heart Disease
Some studies and books have linked ultra-processed foods such as ice cream, crisps, mass-produced bread, and breakfast cereals to a number of poor health outcomes, including an increased risk of some cancers, weight gain, and heart disease.
Professor Janet Cade, who leads the nutritional epidemiology group at the University of Leeds, told a media briefing on Wednesday that some UPFs are "energy dense and nutrient poor – things like biscuits, cakes, that sort of thing". But other foods falling into the UPF bracket are foods "we would encourage such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, yoghurts, and so on".
She said if you took an unprocessed carrot, then a canned carrot would be regarded as processed, "then if it was chopped and packaged into a pre-prepared ready meal" it would be a UPF "yet the nutritional composition of that carrot would vary very little". She added: "And in fact, processing can actually help to preserve nutrients."
She said most research suggesting a link between UPFs and poor health "cannot show cause and effect" and future studies needed detailed measures of food intakes "down to brand level".
She added: "Advice to avoid all ultra-processed foods would be at odds with elements of current guidance and could have an impact on wider nutrient intakes…
"People rely on processed foods for a wide number of reasons, so the bottom line would be that if we remove them from our diets, this would require a huge change in the food supply which is really unachievable for most people and potentially resulting in further stigmatisation, guilt, etc in those who rely on processed foods, promoting further inequalities in disadvantaged groups."
Limitations in Available Evidence
Ian Young, professor of medicine at Queen's University Belfast and chairman of the Government advisory body the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), said the link between adverse health outcomes and UPFs was "unclear due to limitations in the available evidence". It was unclear whether any issues are in fact due to many UPFs being "high in calories, saturated fat… salt and/or sugars, or whether there's any independent effect of the processing".
Professor Pete Wilde, an expert in food structure and digestion at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, added: "Homemade cakes or cheesecakes are not considered processed but they contain high levels of sugar, fat, and possibly salt and (are) rapidly-digested energy. Are they any more healthy than a commercial version of that product?
"In contrast, wholegrain bread is high in fibre and intact wholegrain structures, but is often considered as ultra-processed – the commercial versions."
Robin May, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Birmingham and chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency, also argued it was important that "we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater here". He added: "There are many components that have a very important role to play in nutrition and in safety."
He said sweeteners were a component of some UPFs but it "would be a mistake" for people to ditch them and go back to high-sugar diets when obesity levels are high.
"Similarly for example, many components in ultra-processed foods are there for safety reasons. So, for example, additives that reduce the growth of bacteria or fungi in your food have a really critical role to play in protecting consumers and actually in reducing food waste. If you can have a loaf of bread that stays good for three or four days as opposed to perhaps only one or two, there's a really big benefit there in terms of sustainability.
"I think the key message here is that we need to be driven by the science and mindful of the evidence base and not have this kind of knee-jerk reaction that treats everything the same when we clearly know that everything is not the same."