Can ultra-processed foods actually be good for you?

Assortment of colorful candies
Ultra-processed foods include sweets but also foods such as wholemeal bread. (Getty)

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have hit the headlines around the world this year, with studies blaming them for everything from weight gain to early death.

UPFs are industrially-made food such as ice-cream, breakfast cereal and biscuits – and almost 60% of calorie intake in the UK is believed to come from them.

This year, a huge amount of media attention has focused on ultra-processed foods, with TV doctor Chris Van Tulleken eating a UPF-heavy diet, and documenting how it gave him sleep problems and made him gain weight.

One study has suggested that UPFs could be responsible for 10% of deaths in people aged 30 to 69.

But are UPFs really as bad as they seem – and is the definition of UPF really a useful way to think about eating more healthily?

Ultra-processed foods: Read more

What does science say about ultra processed foods?

Multiple studies have shown that people who eat diets high in UPFs are more prone to serious health problems including obesity, heart attacks and kidney disease.

Two studies published this year showed that people who eat lots of UPFs are at higher risk of heart attacks and of dangerously high blood pressure.

Dr Van Tulleken has called for the foods to carry warning labels in stores.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Dr Chris Van Tulleken (L) and Dr Xander van Tulleken attend the British Academy Children's Awards at The Roundhouse on November 22, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
Dr Chris Van Tulleken and brother Dr Xander van Tulleken. (Getty Images)

Why do some scientists say the fear of UPFs is over-hyped?

Scientists have pointed out that additives such as sweeteners actually make food more healthy, not less, and have an important role to play in curbing obesity.

Other additives in industrially-processed foods work to keep food fresh by preventing the growth of bacteria or fungi.

Professor Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the UK's Food Standards Agency, said that British people risk "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" by shunning ultra-processed foods.

Is the problem the definition of a UPF?

The definition of ultra-processed foods makes it hard to offer specific advice around them, says Professor Janet Cade, head of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Leeds.

She points out that foods most people would consider as healthy, such as wholemeal bread, count as ultra-processed.

Cade said: "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.

"Some UPFs 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."

Can UPFs actually be good for you?

The UK's national innovation agency, Innovate UK, is funding new alternative-nutrition research into whether ultra-processed foods such as breakfast cereals, pasta and ready meals can be made to be healthy.

The organisation is working with nutrition innovation start-up Modern Baker, the creator of Superloaf, which is optimised to be highly nutritious through harnessing selected prebiotic plant fibres, bioactive plant compounds and targeted fermentation.

The idea of the year-long £450,000 research, is to produce factory-made food that is designed to be actively healthy.

The project will also work on combining precision fermentation with artificial intelligence to further optimise the nutrient profile.

Melissa Sharp, who co-created Superloaf, said: "Most of the nutrition deficit in processed foods can be fixed relatively easily – but it does require stepping outside the 40-year-old high-fat-salt-and-sugar orthodoxy, which has been superseded by much greater scientific understanding of the key role the digestive system plays in human health.

"Our six years' research behind Superloaf has been focused on replicating the nutrient profile found in a fruit, veg and whole grain diet from natural plant sources."