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Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are harming our health – here’s what to eat instead

By Sue Quinn


It seems like only yesterday we could enjoy our toast and cereal in the morning without a care in the world. Not anymore. Research published in the The British Medical Journal (BMJ) shows that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as sugary cereals, ready meals and fizzy drinks has been linked to poor mental health and a greater risk of dying from heart issues.

UPFs are usually higher in fat, sugar and salt and contain chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that extend shelf life. And thanks to Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of the bestselling book Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food, it’s a term now popping up everywhere.

Despite the latest research, this is an area beset by contradictions and confusion, with many of us wondering what exactly constitutes an UPF and if there’s anything left to eat that won’t make us fat or unwell.

“It’s high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar, but these ingredients have been combined into industrial products with exotic additives, which can’t really be described as food. They’re ultra-processed foods, a set of edible substances that are addictive for many and which are now linked to weight gain, early death and, yes – depression,” Dr van Tulleken told The Telegraph.

So which foods should remain on the “naughty list”, to be eaten on rare occasions and which can be part of a healthy diet?

Swap UPFs for these foods

Swap your ultra-processed sliced white bread – which contains emulsifiers to improve texture and shelf life – for sourdough made from only flour, salt and yeast.

Ditch processed meat which contains chemical preservatives such as nitrates to make it last longer. Get your protein fix from boiled eggs which are also a good source of vitamins D and B12.

Margarine often contains a lot of emulsifiers to keep its texture – stick to good old-fashioned butter (in moderation).

Some cereals are not only high in sugar, but they can also be ultra-processed. Try to avoid ingredients such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) which are potentially harmful additives or switch to porridge made with oats and cow’s milk for a filling breakfast.

Avoid flavoured tortilla chips and crisps which are high in calories, fat, and salt, plus many crisps are flavoured artificially with ingredients such as monosodium glutamate and dextrose (a type of sugar). Swap for homemade popcorn – as well as being a good source of fibre, popcorn also contains phenolic acids, a type of antioxidant.

Sweetened low fat yogurts are high in added sugars, to replace the flavour lost from removing most of the fat. Try choosing a full-fat natural Greek yoghurt, as the fat actually helps you to feel fuller for longer. Or try kefir yoghurt – it’s full of probiotics to feed your gut bacteria.

What does the latest 2024 research on UPFs say?

The research conducted by academics in Australia, published in February 2024, reviewed 14 studies published in the past years to assess the impact of UPF foods on various health measures. The studies followed a total of 9.9 million people who had responded to questions regarding their food preferences and habits.

Based on their answers and health history the researchers concluded that a higher UPF intake was associated with a 50 per cent greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 12 per cent greater risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 48-53 per cent greater risk of developing anxiety.

The scientists concluded there was further “highly suggestive” evidence that eating more UPFs could increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems and dying from heart disease by 40-66 per cent, as well as a 22 per cent greater risk of developing depression and a 21 per cent greater risk of death from any cause. UPFs have been linked to 32 different health conditions in total, with varying degrees of credibility, the researchers concluded.

All in all, it’s a pretty damning assessment, adding to the multiple black marks chalked up by highly processed, chemically manipulated foods…



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