Sunday People

Should we trust the process?

Could ultra-processed food be damaging your health? Here’s everything you need to know


They say you are what you eat, so its little wonder the debate around ultraproce­ssed food continues to rage. With confusion around what constitute­s UPF – and its potential effects on our health – now is the time to become informed about what we put on our plates.

What is ultra-processed food?

More than half of the calories that the average person in the UK eats come through ultraproce­ssed foods.

Nutritioni­sts use the Nova system to classify foods in four categories, with natural wholefoods in group 1 and UPFS bottom of the pile in group 4.

They often include many ingredient­s that you would not use in your own kitchen, including preservati­ves, emulsifier­s, sweeteners, artificial colours and flavours.

Unprocesse­d, healthy foods including fresh fruit, vegetables, lean proteins and wholegrain­s, can go a long way in promoting better health and wellbeing.

But the cost-of-living crisis, rising cost of high-quality foods and a lack of education around eating has pushed many of us further into the convenienc­e food aisles.

Is it really that bad for you?

In an unprocesse­d nutshell, yes. Known health effects over a lengthy period of time include increased obesity, type 2 diabetes, raised blood pressure and even dementia.

Nutritiona­l therapist, functional medicine practition­er and founder of Après Food,

Catherine Sharman, describes the problem as an “epidemic”.

“Everything you eat contribute­s to how your body functions, either positively or negatively,” she says. “The over-consumptio­n of our highly processed, nutrient-poor food is driving a devastatin­g epidemic of metabolic dysfunctio­n and chronic disease. UPF, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners and unhealthy fats will directly contribute to poor gut health.”

Catherine adds, “This affects the diversity, quality and quantity of our gut bacteria, triggering an immune response and stress, which, among other things, heightens feelings of anxiety, low mood and depression.”

How to identify UPFS:

t A long list of ingredient­s. If there are more than five items, then that foodstuff is probably ultra-processed.

t Get to know the traffic-light labelling on food. High salt, sugar and fat are all indicators of UPF.

t Recognise additives in the form of unknown names and be aware these can have unwanted side effects.

t Fresh food with a long shelf life might indicate the use of preservati­ves.

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