What counts as an ultra-processed food or UPF?

ultra-processed foods include cereals
Cereals are considered to be ultra-processed foods, or a UPFs. (Getty Images)

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere. It’s likely you consume several of them as part of your daily diet - but what are they?

In the most basic of terms ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, are foods including ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a typical household kitchen. So food that’s been altered with chemicals, fats, sugars and starches.

The term has become popularised recently after BBC’s Panorama featured an episode called Ultra-Processed Food: A Recipe for Ill Health? in June.

Read more: How healthy is your supermarket loaf? Here are the ones to avoid (Telegraph, 6-min read)

A recent study found that 57% of the typical British diet is made from UPFs, a third more than countries like Australia.

Prior studies have found that a third of baby foods sold in the UK are UPFs, while UPFs make up almost two-thirds of Britain’s school meals.

baby getty
A third of baby foods are UPFs. (Getty Images)

"In the UK, UPFs have become a significant part of many people's diets, accounting for a substantial portion of daily calorie intake," Lee Mitchell, nutritionist and UK Fitness Ambassador for Renpho, says.

"Recent studies suggest that UPFs can contribute to more than 50% of the total energy intake in an average British diet. This is concerning because these foods often replace whole, minimally-processed foods that provide essential nutrients and health benefits."

What are ultra-processed foods?

UPFs are food products that have undergone extensive processing to add ingredients such as preservatives, flavours, colours and sweeteners.

"These foods are often low in essential nutrients and fibre, while being high in unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium," Mitchell says.

Read more: Ultra-processed foods increase risk of cardiovascular diseases, studies find (PA, 3-min read)

Nutritional therapist Lucia Stansbie says that a UPF is a food that you cannot recreate in your kitchen.

"If you read the back of the pack and the ingredients are things you don’t recognise then this is an ultra processed food."

What counts as a UPF?

Some examples of UPFs include:

  • Cereal

  • Packets of ham

  • Biscuits

  • Sweets

  • Sausages

  • Crisps

  • Mass-produced bread

  • Fruit yoghurts

  • Ice cream

  • Low-fat products

  • Margarine

  • Ketchup

  • Brown sauce

  • Mayonnaise

  • Soft drinks

  • Instant soups

  • Some alcoholic drinks

  • Ready-to-eat meals

  • Chicken nuggets

  • Chocolate

  • Fries

"Normally products with long shelf lives are ultra-processed," Stansbie says. "Also foods which are marketed as being healthy like vegan meat alternatives and gluten-free foods."

child with chicken nuggets
Chicken nuggets are an example of a UPF. (Getty Images)

Are UPFs bad for you?

The British Heart Foundation says that UPFs contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar which, when eaten, leaves less room in our diet for the nutrients and vitamins our bodies need.

"A high consumption of UPF is linked to obesity and related to conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lower general health," Stansbie says.

"In the 1970’s the average British person had a higher calorie intake but their BMI was lower as they weren’t eating as many UPFs.

"Processed foods are already broken down so our body will absorb them immediately including all the calories but actually real food requires energy to break it down."

Benefits of limiting your UPF intake

People who eat a large amount of UPFs often feel sluggish, have low moods and brain fog, Stansbie says, so limiting UPFs can help with these symptoms.

Mitchell adds that it can also help with weight management or weight loss, as you’ll be turning to more nutrient-dense food that will keep you fuller for longer.

Read more: Oh Good – Ultra-Processed Food Might Be Worse For Us Than We Thought (HuffPost, 4-min read)

"Opting for whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides essential nutrients, fibre and antioxidants crucial for good health," he adds.

"This choice stabilises energy levels, aids digestion, and promotes a balanced gut microbiome."

How to minimise your consumption of UPFs

If you are looking to minimise your UPF intake, here are some easy ways to start:

Cook at home

Preparing a meal from scratch allows you to have more control over the ingredients in your food.

Read food labels

Mitchell says to be mindful of nutrition lists and food labels. If a label has an ingredient you don’t recognised, it’s likely a UPF.

"Choose products with recognisable ingredients and lower levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium," he adds.

Carrots and homemade hummus are a great non-UPF snack. (Getty Images)
Carrots and homemade hummus are a great non-UPF snack. (Getty Images)

Snack on vegetables and fruit

"Opt for whole-food snacks like fresh fruits, yoghurt or raw vegetables with hummus, instead of reaching for packaged snacks," Mitchell says.

Swap cereal for oats

Overnight oats made with whole foods like milk, Greek yoghurt, chia seeds, raisins and fruit are a great alternative to cereals.

Chose whole foods

"Prioritise whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and nuts. These provide essential nutrients and are generally lower in additives," Mitchell says.

Limit convenience foods

While the last thing you want to do at the end of the day is cook, spend a Sunday afternoon meal-prepping so you’re not tempted to grab a ready meal on the way home.