Ultra-processed foods

Overcoming MS suggests minimising the amount of ultra-processed food you eat as much as possible.

Ultra-processed foods

Unless you grow, forage or catch all your own food, almost everything you consume has been processed to some extent. Vegetables may be frozen, fish can be smoked, bread is baked, and fruit can be dried. Cooking is a process, as is fermentation so processing isn’t always ‘bad’.  

However, ‘ultra-processed’ foods have crept onto our plates more and more. At OMS we recommend trying to consume as many whole-foods as possible, and that means excluding the ultra-processed foods as much as you can.  

What are ultra-processed foods? 

‘Ultra-processed' food is "the processing of industrial ingredients derived from foods, for example by extruding, moulding, re-shaping, hydrogenation, and hydrolysis. Ultra-processed foods generally also include additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colourants, flavours, and little or no whole food. They may be fortified with micronutrients. The aim is to create durable, convenient ready-to-eat food products." 

It's one of four terms used in the NOVA system to describe food preparation, the other three being: 

Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed 

Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as fish. 

Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients. They include frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen fish, 100 per cent fruit juice, spices and dried herbs. 

Group two: Processed culinary ingredients 

Processed culinary ingredients, include oils, fats such as butter, vinegars, sugars and salt. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with foods in group one. 

Group three: Processed 

Processed foods are products that are usually made using a mix of group one and two ingredients. They include fresh bread, salted or sugared nuts, tinned fruit in syrup, beer and wine. The main purpose of the processing is to prolong the food’s life or enhance its taste. 

3 stages of food processing 

  1. First stage of “processing” involves making sure the food is edible. Harvesting grain or shelling nuts are considered primary processing. Foods that have only gone through this stage of processing are often still considered “whole” foods. 

  1. Secondary steps make a more complex, finished, “processed” product. This includes cooking, freezing, and canning. 

  1. Ultra-processed foods go through a third stage, when manufacturers inject flavours, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives. 

Identifying ultra-processed foods  

Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that you wouldn’t add when preparing homemade food. You may not recognise the names of these ingredients as many will be chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. 

56% of calories an average person in the UK consumes comes from ultra-processed food.  This is for several reasons including – convenience, cost and availability. A diet that contains too many of these kinds of foods means there is less of the more nutritious wholefoods present, so it is strongly encouraged to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods you may consume. 

Buying processed foods can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar, salt and fat, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. There are links between this, weight gain and even chronic disease.  

The most common ultra-processed food include: 

  • Confectionery  

  • Biscuits  

  • Pasties, buns and cakes  

  • Industrial chips  

  • Soft drinks, fruit drinks and fruit juices 

  • Salty snacks 

  • Sauces or dressings  

  • “Other ultra-processed foods”: including baked beans, tinned soups, meat alternatives, soy and drinks used as dairy milk substitutes. 

Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on fat, salt and sugar content. These ‘hidden’ ingredients can promote inflammation and reduce the beneficial nutritional content of the foods we are eating. When living with a long-term health condition like MS, it’s important to consume foods that provide an abundance of nutrients to support overall health as much and as often as we can.  

Most pre-packed foods have the nutrition information on the front, back or side of the packaging. 

If the processed food you want to buy has a nutrition label that uses colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green, to help you recognise those products with the greatest health benefits. 

Places where it gets tricky can include:  

  1. Cereal: plain oats, corn flakes and shredded wheat are minimally processed, but when the manufacturer adds sugar, flavourings or colourings, they become ultra-processed cereals. Try sticking to cereals such as porridge, corn flakes, bran flakes, weetabix etc rather than the more processed versions  

  1. Bread made from wheat flour, water, salt and yeast is processed, but add emulsifiers or colourings and it becomes ultra-processed. Try choosing a wholemeal loaf from the fresh bakery counter in the supermarket  

Meat alternatives 

When we take meat & dairy products out of the diet, it is very easy to replace these with the vegan alternatives and many of these actually fit into the ‘ultra-processed’ category.  Interestingly, nutritional studies have found that a higher avoidance of animal-based foods is associated with a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. These include foods with some additives (texturizers, dyes, emulsifiers, etc) made from textured soy protein foods, quinoa, corn, and other cereals, legumes or pulses. Some will also have a high oil content.  

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t eat them at all, but we do need to be mindful not to rely on them. Instead, look for the less heavily processed veggie alternatives - those with fewer ingredients, such as tofu, and try using fresh or canned beans and lentils more often.  

Tips  

  • Eat whole foods wherever possible and try to reduce the amount of packaged and processed foods you buy. You will probably save money too! 

  • Try looking at food labels and  avoid or limit those products that list more than 5 or 6 ingredients.  

If you're keen to make that first step in changing your diet - then make it avoiding ultra-processed foods, for all round better health and boosting your nutritional intake.  


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