Not ALL ultra-processed food should be avoided, experts say as they warn CARROTS can be wrongly classed as being as bad as chocolate and crisps under blanket system
Not all ultra-processed foods should be avoided, experts warned today.
Biscuits, chocolate and crisps fall into the category, now synonymous with foods offering little nutritional value that are thought to make us fat.
But so do breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and some yoghurts.
Leading experts today rallied against calls for the UK to roll out official guidance to avoid the food group as a whole, saying such a system would be ‘complicated’ and ‘unworkable’.
For example, they noted that a carrot is unprocessed and healthy.
Yet if it is included in a ready meal it would be instantaneously be classed as ultra-processed — putting it in the same category as cake, pastries and fizzy drinks.
Nutrition experts urged against having a ‘knee jerk reaction’ and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ by labelling a swathe of foods as unhealthy, when some contain vital nutrients.
The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, splits food into four groups based on the amount of processing it has gone through. Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs and meat. Processed culinary ingredients — which are usually not eaten alone — include oils, butter, sugar and salt
The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, splits food into four groups based on the amount of processing it has gone through.
Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs and meat.
Processed culinary ingredients — which are usually not eaten alone — include oils, butter, sugar and salt.
Processed foods include items made by combining foods from the first two groups, such as ham, cheese, salted nuts and tinned fruit in syrup.
Ultra-processed food usually contains ingredients you would not find in your kitchen cupboard, such as colourings, sweeteners and preservatives.
WHAT ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS?
Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar and salt, low in protein and fibre and contain artificial colourings, sweeteners and preservatives.
The term covers food that contains ingredients that a person wouldn’t add when cooking at home — such as chemicals, colourings and preservatives.
Ready meals, ice cream, sausages, deep-fried chicken and ketchup are some of the best-loved examples.
They are different to processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their taste, such as cured meat, cheese and fresh bread.
Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, biscuits and fizzy drinks, are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives.
They contain little or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds and eggs.
The foods are usually packed with sugars, oils, fats and salt, as well as additives, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilisers.
Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-consume, taste good and are cheap.
Source: Open Food Facts
As it stands, officials in the UK give dietary advice on how much salt, sugar and saturated fat a person should eat, as well as calories and fibre.
But there are growing calls among some scientists for official guidelines on how much processed food people should eat.
Two studies, published last month, found those who consume lots of ultra-processed foods are at higher risk of suffering a heart attacks and having dangerously high blood pressure. Campaigners labelled the findings the strongest evidence yet that eating ultra-processed foods is deadly.
In response, some called for warning labels on ultra-processed food and for official guidance on how much people should eat.
But Professor Janet Cade, head of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Leeds, today hit out at the idea of guidelines on ultra-processed food intake.
Speaking at a press briefing organised by the Science Media Centre today, she said: ‘When we look at ultra-processed foods, that definition is variable, it’s complicated and indeed it’s actually unworkable.
‘No two experts rate specific foods the same way. Of course, yes, much of the ultra-processed food classification of food is high in fat, sugar and salt.
‘But actually, it’s likely that it’s those nutrients rather than anything else and we’re not still sure on what element of processing … may have an impact on health.’
Professor Cade added: ‘Some [ultra-processed foods] are energy dense and nutrient poor, things like biscuits and cakes.
‘But some are foods that we would encourage, such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, yoghurts and so on.’
She pointed out that a carrot is unprocessed, but is bumped up to processed if it is canned or frozen and becomes ultra-processed if it is ‘chopped and packaged into a pre-prepared ready meal’.
‘But yet the nutritional composition of that carrot would vary very little. And in fact, processing can help to preserve nutrients,’ Professor Cade said.
Professor Ciaran Forde, chair in sensory science and eating behaviour at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, noted that some processing is necessary for certain foods to become edible — such as cereals and grains.
A combination of Chinese and Australian studies suggest eating ultra-processed food could increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke by nearly 25 per cent and the chance of developing high blood pressure by up to 39 per cent
Food experts have set out which options can be ‘part of a healthy diet’. Baked beans, fish fingers and wholemeal bread all make the cut, according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). Tomato-based pasta sauces, wholegrain breakfast cereals and fruit yoghurts are also ‘healthier processed foods’, the charity said
He said that concerns around salt, sugar, fat are not new and years of research has sought to examine how to reduce these nutrients in foods.
‘Currently, if you reformulate foods and make them with lower salt, sugar, fat or calorie contents, it would be regarded as enhancing the degree of processing.
‘However, there are very strong public health reasons to support reformulating to reduce the occurrence of these public health sensitive nutrients in the food supply, so these should not be discounted due to fears about processing.’
He said calls to avoid ultra-processed foods ‘risks demonising foods that are nutritionally beneficial’.
Professor Pete Wilde, group leader of food structure, colloids and digestion at the Quadram Institute, also criticised categorising food by level of process.
He said: ‘Homemade cakes or cheesecakes are not considered processed but contain high levels of sugar and fat and possibly salt and rapidly digested energy.
‘Are they any more healthy than a commercial version of that product?’
He also noted that wholegrain bread is considered ultra-processed if shop-bought, even though it is a ‘rich’ and ‘vital’ source of fibre for many.
Gluten-free products fall into the same category, despite being vital for those with coeliac disease, Professor Wilde added.
Professor Robin May, chief scientific adviser, at the UK’s Food Standards Agency, said despite growing concern among some over ultra-processed foods, people shouldn’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’.
He noted that eating high levels of sugar can lead to obesity, which raises the risk of an array of health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
‘It would be a mistake I think for people to race away from sweeteners, back to high-sugar diets at a time when we know the obesity epidemic is substantial,’ he said.
Ultra-processed foods ‘definitely have a role to play’ in helping people improve their health, Professor May said.
He noted that other ingredients that make foods ultra-processed are there for safety reasons, such as additives that reduce the growth of bacteria or fungi in food.
They can also reduce food waste by helping foods, such as bread, stay edible for longer, Professor May said.
He added: ‘That of course doesn’t mean that all ultra-processed foods are perfect.
‘The key message here is that we need to be driven by the science and evidence base and not have this knee-jerk reaction that treats everything the same when we clearly know that everything isn’t the same.’
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: Five portions of fruit and vegetables, two whole-wheat cereal biscuits, two thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks), choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink six to eight cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
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