Ultra-processed Foods

Here in the UK, we consume more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) than anywhere else in Europe. Recent estimates have shown that over 50% of the calories we consume come from foods that are classified as UFPs.

So, what are ultra-processed food and are they bad for us, and the planet? 

The NOVA classification system breaks food down into four categories, based on the extent of and reason for processing.  

Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods 

Unprocessed foods are the edible parts of plants and animals, in their most natural form.  Minimally processed foods are natural foods which have undergone processes to remove unwanted parts and make them safe or edible, or to preserve them, such as grinding, boiling, freezing, or pasteurisation.  

Examples: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, milk, eggs, meat, natural spices. 

Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients 

These are products are derived from Group 1 foods through processes such as refining, grinding, drying, milling, and pressing. They are usually used in small amounts for seasoning or in addition to Group 1 foods; they are rarely eaten on their own. 

Examples: butter, oils, salt, sugar, vinegar. 

Group 3 – Processed foods 

These foods are created by combining Group 1 and Group 2 foods. Most of these foods have two or three ingredients which you’d recognise and could buy yourself in the shops.  

Examples: cheese, salted nuts, canned fish, pates, purees 

Group 4 – Ultra-processed foods 

These foods have been mostly or entirely made from substances derived from foods and additives, as opposed to modified foods you’d recognise. They usually have five or more ingredients, many of which you would not find in your kitchen or on the supermarket shelves. They will often include additives such as preservatives, stabilisers, and anti-oxidants.  

Examples: soft drinks, reconstituted meat products, frozen ready meals, crisps, shop-bought biscuits. 

However, it’s the degree of processing plus the addition of industrial chemicals that make UPFs a cause for concern for people and the planet.  

Impact on the environment 

Producing UPFs has a huge impact on the environment. The majority of UPFs contain meat, eggs, milk, maize, palm, soya, and wheat. This heavy reliance on a small number of products leads to intensive farming practices like monoculture (growing a single crop), resulting in poor soil quality, destruction of habitats, and loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, the industrial refining process of the ingredients for UPFs requires high energy inputs and the use of petrochemicals, both which drive the production of greenhouse gases.  

Impact on health 

High consumption of UPFs has been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, depression, and kidney disease. It is still uncertain why UPFs have a detrimental effect on health. However, most UPFs are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) and low in dietary fibre, all of which have large amounts of evidence linking high consumption with poor health outcomes. In addition to the low nutrient density of UPFs, they are highly palatable but not very satiating e.g. they don’t create a sense of fullness when eaten, which leads to overeating.  

Recent research has shown that processing foods affects the body’s response to food e.g. less fat is absorbed when eating whole nuts compared to the same amount of ground nuts. Therefore, it could be the combination of ingredients and the way they are processed that leads to increased risk of developing diseases associated with UPF consumption. However, more research is needed into UPFs to confirm this. 

But are all UPFs bad for you? 

Although the majority of UPFs are food items which we should aim to be eating less of, some UPFs can be eaten as part of a healthy diet. Both the British Nutrition Foundation and British Dietetics Association state that some UPFs can support people to meet their nutritional needs.  Examples of these are sliced wholemeal bread, ready-made vegetable pasta sauces, and low sugar wholegrain breakfast cereals.   

Tips to reduce your consumption of UPFs 

  • Look at the front of pack labelling on packaged products which used the traffic light system to indicate whether the levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt are low (green), medium (orange), or high (red). 
  • Check the ingredients list on ready-to eat foods. The shorter the ingredient list the better! Also, watch out for ingredients that you wouldn’t find on the supermarket shelves, such as flavorings, colourings and emulsifiers.  
  • Drink water infused with fresh fruit instead of fizzy drinks. 
  • Swap out ready-made vegetarian and vegan products with tofu, tempeh, banana blossom, jackfruit, plantain, or pulses.  
  • Snack on nuts and seeds as opposed to biscuits, or even make your own at home! You can find some home bake recipes we’ve developed here 
  • Add your own fresh fruit to plain yoghurt in place of flavoured yoghurts. 

Instead of trying to cut out UPFs completely from your diet, focus on including more wholefoods or minimally processed foods in your snacks and meals, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and pulses. This will naturally reduce your intake of UPFs, helping to boost your health and the health of the planet!  


BDA (2012) Position Statement: Processed Foods 

BHF (2024) Ultra-processed foods: how bad are they for your health. 

BNF (2021) BNF survey reveals confusion about ultra-processed foods. 

BNF (2023) Position Statement on the concept of ultra-processed foods (UPF)  

Soil Association (2022): How bad is ultra processed food for the planet. 

Soil Association (2024): Ultra-processed foods.  

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