Ultra-processed food is getting more attention from health experts, but what is it and, if we want to avoid it, how is it possible?

Although ultra-processed foods hit the headlines last week researchers have been looking at the concept since 2010. The idea is that food, and drink, can be put into four categories from unprocessed to ultra-processed with each category having certain characteristics to look out for. So, for example, unprocessed foods include “edible parts of plants or animals” which means things like fruit, veg, pulses and unprocessed meat.  Minimally processed would be natural foods where the inedible or unwanted parts are removed but nothing is added. A fruit salad or joint would fit the bill.

What about ultra-processed? Typically, these are “industrial” formulations with five or more ingredients and include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations as well as additives whose purpose is to imitate how unprocessed foods feel and taste or disguise some of the undesirable qualities of the processed foods.

So how can you find them? The report from the British Medical Journal has a long list including mass produced packaged breads and buns; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; industrialised confectionery; sweetened drinks and meat balls but this may not help most supermarket shoppers in a hurry.

The label may also not be a great help. We looked for the term “ultra-processed” in our database of over 250,000 products and, unsurprisingly, did not find a single product that has it on the label. Even the term “processed” only appears in 1% of the time in some of the main food and drink categories and most of the time it refers to processed peas (not the main health concern) and processed cheese. Terms that suggest a food should be in the ultra-processed category such as Maltodextrin (8%), Emulsifier (17%), and Aspartame (2% even though it’s only in drinks) appear much more frequently.

We offer two ways to try and spot ultra-processed food. Neither is perfect but hopefully they’ll help you make the choices you want:

1 – look at the ingredients list and if you see 5 or more ingredients, lots of ingredients you don’t recognise and lots of terms you don’t recognise (e.g. emulsifier, bulking agent) then you’re probably in the ultra-processed category.

2 – download the Giki app and look to see whether a product gets a “Free from Additives” badge. This will cover more than just the ultra-processed group but you can use the “learn more” feature to check out a list of additives so you can easily see how many there are and whether you recognise them.

Perhaps the most simple approach could be the most effective. Go down to your local greengrocer, fruit and veg stall or farmers’ market and buy in season, organic fruit, veg and meat.

Download the UK Giki app now!