Ultra-processed food impacts health, climate and nature
The UK consumes more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) than anywhere else in Europe. UPFs make up 65% of our children’s diets, and over 50% of our shopping baskets.
These foods have serious health implications, especially when consumed at the volume they are in the UK. A growing body of new scientific evidence links UPFs with heart, kidney and liver disease, obesity, cancer, depression and even early death.
As well as the effect on our health, ultra-processed foods have a higher carbon cost, drive biodiversity loss and typically rely on intensive farming processes.
What are ultra-processed foods?
The NOVA classification system categorises foods into four groups – unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods. It’s the ultra-processed food category that is cause for concern. Our Ultra-Processed Planet report dives into the NOVA classification in more detail.
Processing food is not necessarily a bad thing. Fermenting, pickling, tinning and chopping are all forms of processing. What makes ultra-processed foods distinctive is that they have gone through industrial processes that have changed the nature of the original ingredients, leaving little, if any, of the original whole food behind.
Also, they usually include the addition of industrial chemicals to the recipe that you would never find in a family kitchen. These ingredients include soy protein isolate, emulsifiers, artificial colours and flavours and other additives to make them tastier and have a longer life.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- fizzy drinks,
- shop-bought biscuits and cakes,
- ready meals,
- reconstituted meat products,
- breakfast cereals,
- many baby foods, and
- sweetened yoghurts.
They are typically ready-to-consume or heat up, and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, offering little to no nutritional value.
Our Taking the Biscuit campaign outlines the case against ultra-processed foods and what you can do to help.
The case against ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods impact us in two significant ways. They negatively affect both our health and the environment.
As summarised in our case for rebalancing the UK diet, there is a clear link between the national availability of ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases. UPFs are not just commonly high in salt, fat and sugar but are very frequently less satiating than unprocessed foods, causing us to overeat.
This means ultra-processed foods impact us on two fronts – they are nutritionally less beneficial to consume and at the same time hyper-palatable, triggering mechanisms that cause us to eat more of them. This impact was shown to be the case in a randomised control trial in 2019.
The study showed that when presented with a diet containing greater quantities of ultra-processed foods, overall calorie intake was higher and participants put on weight. As the UK currently consumes a high amount of ultra-processed foods, this study highlights a cause for concern.
What is also worrying is that the consumption of ultra-processed food is rising worldwide, and is particularly dominant in UK diets.
Climate and nature impact
Our food system is sickly. It should nourish us and the planet – but the proliferation of UPFs is both damaging to our health and to the systems we use to sustain ourselves.
Demand for ultra-processed foods drives intensive monocrop production and industrial refining processes. Producing cheap, standardised crops places a heavy burden on our ecosystems.
Similarly, breaking these crops down into their constituent parts for use in UPFs must be done as cheaply as possible to maximise profitability, using energy-intensive methods and petrochemicial inputs.
The damage caused by intensive monocrop farming is well-documented. Wild habitats are destroyed, forests are felled, and animal species are put at risk. Forest clearing often uses the ‘slash and burn’ method to quickly clear areas for intensive agriculture, leading to massive releases of carbon into the atmosphere. In the UK, intensive agriculture for commodity crops has displaced wild habitats, degraded soil and displaced more diverse methods of farming.
If these trends continue, greenhouse gas emissions from UPF consumption are set to double by 2050.
The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in diets has also contributed to a loss of food diversity. 12 plants and 5 animals now constitute 75% of our diet globally. This has huge ramifications for food system resilience. Far from the ‘choice’ consumers believe they are offered from a vast selection of UPFs on the supermarket shelves, these foods represent the same nutritionally bereft ingredients in different packaging.
At the product level, manufacturing ingredients for UPFs requires higher energy inputs and the use of petrochemicals, such as hexane. In addition to this, food manufacturing, packaging and production at farm level are responsible for 19 per cent of food chain greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.
Our food system needs reorientating, moving away from industrial commodity crops and fossil fuel inputs, and towards agroecological farming, such as organic, and a more diverse range of fresh and minimally processed foods.
How can we push back against ultra-processed foods?
Our Taking the Biscuit campaign called for the government to stop promoting ultra-processed foods. You can read how thousands of people demanded the government take action on ultra-processed foods here.
The government’s Better Health campaign promotes small, healthy changes the public can make around food and lifestyle choices like drinking and smoking.
Part of this campaign is the NHS food scanner app, which claims to ‘help you and your family make healthier food and drink choices.’ This app allows members of the public to scan products in shops and be offered healthier alternatives.
In a review we conducted of more than 100 snack products awarded a ‘Good Choice’ badge or similar by the NHS scanner app, 80% were ultra-processed. This app is meant to help families make healthy food choices, but instead is promoting ultra-processed foods.
The UK should be following the example of other governments, such as France, in approaching ultra-processed foods as a public health issue and setting reduction targets on the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
France has committed to a reduction target of 20% on the already low 14% that ultra-processed foods make up in their national diet. The UK target should be at least this ambitious, aiming to bring the UK up from the bottom of the table from 'worst in class' to 'best in class.’
Dietary guidelines and food labelling
We want people to be more informed, not less, about the foods they are consuming. This is why we consider the information given on the NHS Food Scanner App to be a step in the wrong direction. This information gives the impression that ultra-processed foods are a healthier choice, when fresh or minimally processed foods should be given priority.
Other governments such as Canada, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay are leading the way, with clear guidelines that promote the consumption of fresh foods and discourage ultra-processed food consumption. They also utilise front-of-pack labelling for at-a-glance information that helps consumers identify unhealthy foods and drinks.
An agroecological farming system
Adopting agroecological farming practices tackles many of the issues we see in our food system.
Agroecology stands opposed to many features of our industrialised food system, including the intensive production of commodity crops for ultra-processing.
This means less biodiversity loss and a fairer share of profits for farmers. It champions diversity and prioritises fresh foods supplied through local supply chains.
It also offers an alternative political model for the food system, emphasising ‘food citizenship’ and a more democratic balance of power, promoting policies that ensure a ‘fair deal’ for producers and citizens.
Agroecology is ultimately concerned with putting the damaging feedback loops of our ultra-processed planet into reverse, generating positive feedback loops that promote both human and planetary wellbeing. Find out more about agroecology here.
Reducing your consumption
We believe that the onus of responsibility falls on the government, not individuals, to change the UK food environment. The UK government needs to support public health by taking action to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed food.
However, if you are concerned about your or your family’s consumption of ultra-processed food and would like to take steps to reduce it, the following steps can help.
Tips on reducing your intake of UPFs
There are some key indicators you can look out for to identify if a food is ultra-processed. These include:
- A long list of ingredients- check labels and opt for products with fewer ingredients- the less the better!
- Unrecognisable ingredients with “chemical-sounding” names you would never expect to find in a family kitchen, just a few examples being “monosodium glutamate”, “acesulfame K” “aspartame” and “disodium ribonucleotide”
- Fresh food with a long shelf life e.g., sausage rolls, pasties etc. Packed lunch items often fall into this category.
- Aggressive marketing and branding
Choosing staples like rice, pasta and noodles in their natural whole form instead of pre-packaged “just add water” varieties like pot noodles or rice pots is a good way to reduce your ultra-processed food consumption. You can then build meals around these staples using fresh or frozen vegetables. Keep the options exciting by experimenting with new ingredients. For example, veggie chips using potato, carrot, or courgette baked in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil & herbs to flavour can help reduce the consumption of pre bought crisps. Breads, breakfast cereals, meat and cheese can also be ultra-processed or not – always check the label.
If you have children, repeating the same offerings can help them become more used to new flavours and the textures of whole foods, meaning bulk buying and batch-cooking non-ultra-processed staples for your family can also help you save money. Trading drinks from fizzy, sugary options to ice cold water infused with fresh fruits like lemon, lime and orange slices is also a simple swap to make.
If you eat meat, opt for eating less but higher quality meat rather than burgers or sausages. If you are vegan or vegetarian, there are many meat alternatives that are better than the ultra-processed, ready-made options. Tofu, tempeh, banana blossom, jackfruit and plantain all make great alternatives to meat, and beans, lentils, peas and other pulses are also great wholefood alternatives.