Ultra-processed foods: What are they & are they harmful - examples include sausages & instant soups

Consuming ultra-processed foods could pose dangers to your health and wellbeing, according to the British Heart Foundation - here’s why.

About half the things people eat in the UK are made of ultra-processed foods - or UPF - as more people choose convenience over nutritional value. While they may be accessible and inexpensive, these products are typically high in calories and saturated fats and could pose real dangers to health and wellbeing.

From mass produced-bread to sausages, ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients, according to the British Heart Foundation. They also tend to include ingredients not typically used at home.

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And the UK’s consumption of ultra-processed foods is on the rise, putting it among the biggest consumers per head in Europe. This reflects higher rates of diabetes and cancer too, according to the BBC.

Prof Tim Spector, is a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London, who studies trends in disease. He told BBC Panorama: "In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought. We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia."

In January, one of the most comprehensive studies on ultra-processed food - by Imperial College’s School of Public Health - was published in The Lancet medical journal. The study of 200,000 UK adults found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer overall, and specifically ovarian and brain cancers.

As of last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) is now cautioning against the long-term use of artificial sweeteners - citing potential health risks. It follows dozens of studies linking increasing consumption of UPF to increased risk of developing serious illnesses.

What is ultra-processed food?

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The British Heart Foundation says the term ‘ultra-processed foods’ comes from the NOVA food classification system, which was developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf life.

The common examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurt, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.The common examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurt, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.
The common examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurt, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.

Ultra-processed foods - common examples

According to the British Heart Foundation, the common examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurt, instant soups, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum.

How harmful are ultra-processed foods?

The British Heart Foundation said ultra-processed foods often contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar. It’s also been suggested that the additives in these foods could be responsible for negative health effects.

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It said: “The actual processing of the food could also make a difference to how our bodies respond to it. Studies have shown, for example, that when foods such as nuts are eaten whole the body absorbs less of the fat than when the nut is ground down and the oils are released. Another new theory is that diets higher in ultra-processed foods could also affect our gut health.

mass produced bread is considered ultra-processed foodmass produced bread is considered ultra-processed food
mass produced bread is considered ultra-processed food

“Currently, it’s also hard to know whether it is something within the foods that is the issue or whether eating a diet high in these foods suggests an overall lifestyle that is linked to poorer health. However, given the high salt, sugar, and saturated fat content of most of these foods, cutting down does seem sensible.”

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