Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Everyday foods you might not realise are ultra-processed


Don’t we all love junk food even though every doctor and nutritionist out there tells us to run as far away from it as we can. Junk food is supposed to be bad for you but it’s such a wide and relative term. Industrial food processing is the key culprit of nutrition problems. 

Infact i wish the processed food aisle in grocery stores be christened — 

“skip this aisle to be healthy”

automatically your reflex action may skip it and lead to limiting your consumption of these foods. 

Food is classified into four categories based on how much they have been processed during production —

  • unprocessed or minimally processed foods include fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats and grains.
  • processed culinary ingredients include  sugar, salt, butter, lard, oils, vinegar.
  • processed foods include freshly made unpackaged bread, tinned fruits and vegetables, salted nuts, ham, bacon, tinned fish, cheese and unpackaged bakery products.
  • ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, cold cuts, chips, instant noodles, flavoured yogurts and even some alcohols like whisky, gin, and rum.

What are ultra processed foods? 

Let’s talk about ultra processed foods —

The most dangerous kind of junk food is ultra-processed foods, it is defined as industrial formulations with five or more ingredients that are industrial substances like preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colours and flavours. 

 Ultra-processed foods are loaded with salt, fat and sugar. Consuming ultra processed foods regularly can lead to severe health problems, overall poor health and even planetary health problems like plastic pollution, excessive energy and land use and loss of biodiversity. This category of food is making headlines and not in a good way. 

Ultra-processed foods are made using industrial processing methods and contain ingredients you wouldn’t usually find in your home pantry. These processing methods include extrusion, moulding, chemical modification and hydrogenation (which turns liquid unsaturated fat into a solid form). The catch here is that manufacturers aren’t obligated to state the processes the foods undergo on the packaging and labels, making it a challenge to spot ultra-processed foods. 

The best place to start your anti treasure hunt is the INGREDIENTS LIST.

Foods you might not realise are ultra-processed —

Ultra-processed is not just another name for junk food. There are many packaged foods we’d normally consider healthy that are actually ultra-processed and very bad for you. 

  • Breakfast cereals- Many breakfast cereals are often marketed as healthy but in reality they are super unhealthy and ultra processed with additives, colours and fibres.
  • Protein and muesli health bars- In spite of being called health bars, most of them are ultra-processed and full of hidden sugars. 
  • Plant-based milks- packaged dairy alternative drinks are full of emulsifiers, vegetable gums and flavour to maintain its shelf life and give it a milk-like consistency. However not all brands are ultra-processed so be sure to check the ingredients list. 
  • Flavoured yogurts- Flavoured yogurts are brimming with additives. Opt for plain yogurt instead and flavour it with fruit, honey or healthy ingredients of your choice. 
  • Breads- Some pre packaged breads contain additives and emulsifiers. Choose fresh bakery breads versus pre packaged breads. 
  • Processed meats and cold cuts- Packaged cold cuts and meats are tempting but don’t let it turn into another Snow White and apple situation. Choose roast meats or cooked meats instead. 
  • Store bought bases and sauces- Pre-prepared pasta sauces and stir-fry sauces are delicious but full of additives. Making a simple sauce at home with known ingredients can ensure you know what is going into your body. 

Ways to recognise ultra-processed food —

  • The packaging has a long list of ingredients. A product that contains more than five ingredients is most likely to be ultra-processed. 
  • Unrecognisable ingredients could be additives.
  • High fat, sugar and salt content equals ultra-processed. 
  • ‘Fresh food’ with a long shelf life can have some preservatives which can qualify it as an ultra processed food. 
  • Aggressive marketing and branding of foods means it has been processed. Ever seen a high-profile marketing campaign for apples and pears? Nope. And you know why? Because it hasn’t been processed. 

Some types of ultra-processed foods may look healthier than others, but it’s still ultra processed.  When you consume ultra-processed food, you are displacing nutritious, fresh food with unhealthy food.  Supermarkets are overflowing with ultra-processed foods, so it can be difficult to avoid them entirely. Being vigilant about what goes into your body is the best way to avoid ultra processed foods.  Food is more than fuel and filler. Focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, whether fresh or frozen. 

Here are some healthier alternatives for ultra processed foods- 

Ultra-processed Processed Home version
white bread whole wheat bread with minimal ingredients Whole grain or multigrain bread 
flavoured candy bar with a long ingredient list simple candy bar with short ingredient list 70% dark chocolate 
flavoured potato chips plain/ unsalted tortilla chips Pita chips or vegetable slices
sweetened breakfast cereals plain bran cereal oatmeal made with rolled oats and sweetened with honey
flavoured granola bars with added sugar and preservatives granola bars with minimal additives DIY granola
Soft drinks, energy drinks, high sugar fruit juices  artificially flavoured sparkling water Fresh fruit juice or fruit slices


“When you already know they’re not the best for you, check-in with your mind and gut before putting something in your shopping cart.”

Vinita Alvares Fernandes
Vinita Alvares Fernandes is an Economics graduate, a writer and a Trinity College certified public speaker and communicator

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