What Are Ultra Processed Foods And Are They Bad For You?

What Are Ultra Processed Foods And Are They Bad For You?

In the 1980s we avoided fats - even the ones we now know to be healthy choices. In the 2000s, carbohydrates were public enemy number one. In the 2010s, sugar transformed from a harmless sweet treat to poison. When it comes to nutrition, the media loves a fall guy - a single ingredient (or whole food group) we can blame for a raft of health concerns. These days, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are in the firing line, and they’re currently being blamed for everything from obesity[1] and diabetes[2] to the climate crisis[3]

If you’ve lived long enough to see many former nutritional ‘truths’ reversed (remember when butter was evil and margarine our salvation?) you might be wondering whether all the fears over UPFs should be taken with a pinch of (low-sodium) salt. After all, decades of demonising specific foods and macronutrients have not tangibly reduced obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

From ice cream to mass-produced bread, UPFs are so ingrained in our diets it’s no wonder their consumption has become a topic of intense debate among health professionals and consumers alike. In 2019, ultra-processed foods accounted for over half of the total energy intake in adults in the UK diet. In children it increased to over 70% and in adolescents it increased to a whopping 82.9%[4].. 

Characterised by their high levels of sugar, fat, and artificial additives, UPFs have been linked to a range of health concerns, from high blood pressure[5] to heart disease[6]. But, the question of whether they are inherently detrimental to our health remains a subject of ongoing research and discussion. 

So let’s delve into the complex world of ultra-processed foods, examining their nutritional composition along with their effects on the body to unravel the truth behind the headlines.

Understanding ultra-processed foods 

Almost all food is processed to some extent. Even simple ingredients like flour, olive oil and tinned tomatoes have undergone some kind of processing away from their natural, raw states. But UPF is different. 

More of a marriage of food science and modern grocery retailing, their manufacturing and consumption has exploded over the last 60 years. Like an ultra-tweaked version of real food, ultra-processed food usually contains five or more ingredients, along with compounds with names that would sound more at home in a lab than a kitchen. Heavily manufactured, packed with additives, emulsifiers and artificial flavours, they’re designed to be ultra-convenient too, because of their long shelf lives.

UPFs are low in nutrients like vitamins and minerals, while added sugar, fat, and artificial flavours make them highly palatable - and some would argue, addictive. At the very least, they’re exceptionally easy to overeat. But we don’t just like the taste. Their low price and convenience can be an attractive option during a cost-of-living crisis that sees us increasingly financially and time-poor.  

What is ultra processed food?

Food processing refers to any action that alters food from its natural state, from drying, and freezing, milling and canning to adding salt, sugar, fat, or other additives for flavour or preservation. 

Previously there were only two categories: processed and unprocessed. However, those categories were unhelpful when it came to recognising the nutrition of the food in question. For example, whole milk could not be distinguished from a malted milk biscuit, as both fall into the processed category, but clearly one has nutritional benefits whilst the other has not.

Enter the Nova food classification system. Originally developed by malnutrition researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, it classifies foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. The system places food into four categories based on how much they have been processed:

Group 1 - unprocessed or minimally processed foods:

Applies to single, basic foods with the purpose of preserving them, making them more available, accessible and often safer and more palatable. Additives are absent in this group.

Examples include fresh meat and fish, fresh, frozen and dried fruit and vegetables, milk, plain yoghurt, grains and legumes, mushrooms, eggs, flour, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, pasta and couscous.

Group 2 - processed culinary ingredients:

Culinary ingredients extracted and purified from unprocessed or minimally processed foods. They’re typically free of additives and are primarily used in seasoning and cooking group 1 foods when preparing dishes from scratch. 

Examples include starches, flours, sugar, salt, vinegar, butter, maple syrup, honey and olive and vegetable oils.

Group 3 - processed foods

Group 3 foods are relatively simple food products made by adding group 2 ingredients such as salt or sugar to foods in group 1, in order to preserve and enhance their flavour. They often use additives.

Examples include freshly made bread and cheese, tinned foods (including fish and fruit), cured meats, smoked fish, salted nuts and seeds.

Group 4 - ultra-processed foods

An engineered, industrially-produced food, usually further processing an already processed ingredient. They may contain unprocessed group 1 foods, but these often comprise just a small proportion of their total ingredients and may even be lacking entirely. 

Typically ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat or snack food, and typically including five (or many more) ingredients, they involve a hefty addition of additives, emulsifiers and preservatives. They are foods that ultimately replace the need to prepare and cook at home.

Ultra-processed foods list

What foods are ultra-processed? The list includes food such as margarines and spreads, fizzy drinks, packaged snacks like biscuits, chocolate bars, cereal bars, protein bars, ice cream, cakes and pastries, sausages and burgers, packaged pies and pizza, processed bread, and chicken nuggets.

How to recognise ultra-processed foods at a glance

Figuring out where any given food sits on the processing spectrum can be a minefield, but there are some red flags to watch out for. 

  • The emphasis on the words “packaged” or “ready-made” are crucial when considering if something is classified UPF or not. 
  • Health claims. A lot of UPFs are in fact labelled as healthy - for example a popular mass-produced bread with 21 seeds and grains claims to be “high in fibre”, “high in protein” and “low sugars”, yet the (long) list ingredients contain two emulsifiers, a glazing agent and the food additive, calcium propionate.
  • If you don’t recognise some of the ingredients on the label, it’s likely to be an ultra-processed food. 
  • If the food has a long shelf life, it’s likely to be UPF.
  • If it contains an ingredient such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, interesterified oils, hydrolysed protein, flavours, flavour enhancer, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, anti-foaming, foaming, bulking, gelling, or glazing, it is an ultra-processed food.

The effect of ultra-processed food on health

A large and growing body of research has found strong associations between high UPF intake and many elevated health risks, including weight gain and obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

Obesity and weight gain

One randomised controlled trial found that people on UPF diets ate more calories and gained more weight than those on unprocessed diets[7].. The reason for this? A combination of convenience, hyper-palatability, a lack of fibre disrupting satiety signalling, and marketing that is highly persuasive.

Type 2 diabetes

There is a linear association between UPF intake and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes[8]. Studies indicate that they induce a high glycemic response (push blood sugar levels up) and have a low satiety potential (meaning it’s harder to feel full)[9].


Researchers from Imperial’s School of Public Health monitored the health and diets of 200,000 middle-aged adult participants over a 10-year period. They found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, and ovarian and brain cancers specifically[10].

Vascular diseases

In studies comparing participants with the highest versus the lowest UPF consumption, highest intake was significantly associated with a 29% greater relative risk of cardiovascular disease and/or mortality, and a 34% greater relative risk of cerebrovascular disease and/or mortality[11].

Gut health and inflammation

Emulsifiers in particular are now shown to imbalance the gut microbiome and cause gastrointestinal permeability (leaky gut) and intestinal inflammation. There are currently 63 listed emulsifiers in foods: 

  • Anything that has an ingredient that starts with the letter ‘E’, for example: E-471
  • Carboxymethylcellulose
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Soy lecithin
  • Xanthan gum
  • Mono and diglycerides
  • Sodium stearoyl lactylate
  • Acacia or gum arabic
  • Lactic acid ester
  • Agar
  • Acetic acid ester
  • Carrageenan

There is a full list of current emulsifiers here.

So are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

That UPFs can have negative effects on human health is rarely refuted. But, as with most things, when it comes to nutrition, the answer comes down to how much you eat. Moderation is key. 

It’s also worth remembering that while the case against UPFs may look cut and dried, there’s still room for nuance. Even within the UPF category there is a spectrum - for example, a strawberry yoghurt may not be as bad for your health as a frozen pizza, although both come wrapped in plastic and contain emulsifiers. 

This was recognised recently, when a major international study published by The Lancet and backed by the World Health Organisation found that some UPF is actually good for our health, with the fibre in bread and cereal (even the ultra-processed kind) associated with a reduced risk of developing cancer, heart disease and diabetes[12]. 

Stigmatising UPFs is also likely to be unhelpful - and in some cases could even be harmful to health. UPFs are safe and accessible in a challenging food environment. People who live in food deserts, have no time to cook from scratch or lack access to adequate cooking facilities may have little choice but to eat UPFs. 

Ready meals can be a lifeline to sick, elderly or disabled people trying to live independently at home. Avoiding UPFs could risk not meeting their caloric needs, putting their health further at risk. Vegans who avoid ultra-processed food such as textured soy protein risk becoming protein deficient[13]..

How to reduce ultra-processed food

Inessa nutritionist, Emma Mihill, has this advice to anyone looking to reduce the amount of UPFs in their diets:


Learn where your UPFs are hiding. Look around your own kitchen cupboards and you might be astonished by how many you find. Having the knowledge in the first place as to what a UPF actually is, means you can make an informed choice.


Rather than banishing UPFs completely, identify how much of your diet they currently make and see if you can find alternatives to try and reduce your intake. This could be as simple as increasing your intake of vegetables, fruit, lentils, beans and pulses. They satiate you and offer a world of health benefits.


Look for alternatives of your favourite foods without the UPFs. For example, instead of snacking on fruit bars choose fresh, whole fruit, or go for raw nuts or seeds instead of cereal bars.

Can’t live without pizza? We’ve listed some smart swaps below. It’s worth pointing out, however, that avoiding UPFs completely takes both time and money- resources that are currently in short supply for all but a lucky few. Therefore it’s worth pointing out that the substitutes we’ve listed will almost certainly cost more than their UPF equivalents, and take longer to prepare.

Eating for health

Rather than concentrating on which foods or ingredients need to be banished from your shopping list altogether, it’s a great idea to put the emphasis on increasing your intake of healthy food instead. Experts at least agree on one thing - that we would all benefit from adding more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes to our daily diets.

Adding vitamins and supplements can also help make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy and this can be done with quality supplements like the ones we make, here at Inessa. 

Would you like more information about how to eat for optimal health? Get in touch with a qualified nutritionist for free.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like The health benefits of coffee.


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10334162/
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9228591/
3. https://globe-net.com/ultra-processed-foods-bad-for-our-bodies-and-for-the-environment/
4. Rauber F, Louzada MLDC, Martinez Steele E, et alUltra-processed foods and excessive free sugar intake in the UK: a nationally representative cross-sectional studyBMJ Open 2019;9:e027546. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-027546
5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33658095/
6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36006020/
7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31105044/
8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36854188/
9. Fardet, A (2016) Minimally processed foods are more satiating and less hyperglycemic than ultra-processed foods: a preliminary study with 98 ready-to-eat foods. Food Funct 7, 2338–2346
10. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370(23)00017-2/fulltext
11. Pagliai G, Dinu M, Madarena MP, Bonaccio M, Iacoviello L, Sofi F. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Jou
12. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanepe/article/PIIS2666-7762(23)00190-4/fulltext
13. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2409581-vegans-who-avoid-ultra-processed-food-risk-being-protein-deficient

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Inessa Team

Our team pull together science-backed information to bring you up to date health and wellness insights.

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