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Ultra-processed foods in the news

You may have recently heard of ultra-processed foods and their link to cancer in the news, so what is this all about?

Researchers from the French Research Institute have been studying the diet, activity, health status and other factors of 160,000 participants since 2009. This study found that when we increase our consumption of ultra-processed foods by 10%, this increases our risk of cancer by more than 10%. This data also took into account factors such as genetically-related incidents of cancer, so points the finger firmly at ultra-processed foods as the cause.

So what is an ultra-processed food? NOVA classifies food according to how they have been processed and these fall into four categories:

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed, e.g. raw fruit, bagged salads, cut meat, roasted nuts, frozen and canned vegetables

  2. Processed culinary ingredients, e.g. salt, sugar, butter, vegetable oils

  3. Processed foods, e.g. a fruit compote with added sugar, canned vegetables with added salt

  4. Ultra-processed foods, e.g. added flavourings, industrially fried foods, ingredients such as “texturisers”

The difference between processed and ultra-processed foods is that the former is food prepared by adding ingredients such as salt and sugar using simple industrial technology, whereas ultra-processed foods are mass produced and have substances added that are not culinary ingredients – generally things that we don’t recognise on an ingredients list.

In the last ten years, there has been a dramatic increase towards ultra-processed food consumption. The NutriNet Santé Prospective Cohort study, shows that these foods now represent 25% to 50% of our daily energy intake. The exact cause is unknown (yet), but some hypotheses include the poor nutritional content of these types of food as well as the high salt content, food additives or packaging that comes into food during processing, and compounds that are formed during processing that are linked to cancer, such as acrylamides.

The recommendations are to reduce the consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods and give more priority in our diets to raw, unprocessed and minimally-processed foods. Examples of these are:

Unprocessed foods – raw and uncut

Raw nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, leaves, stems, roots, uncut meat and offal, eggs, milk, fungae, water

Minimally processed, i.e. natural foods altered by processing

Removing inedible/unwanted parts

Drying, crushing, grinding, filtering, roasting, boiling

Non-alcoholic pasteurisation and fermentation, e.g. yogurt, Kefir

Refrigeration, freezing and placing into containers

So basically, try to avoid foods with a long list of ingredients that you don’t recognise and that have a long shelf life. The closer it resembles its natural state, i.e. how you would find it in the natural environment, the better.

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