What are Ultra-processed foods?

What are Ultra-processed foods? 

What we’ll cover:

  • Establishing the difference between ‘processed foods’ and ‘ultra-processed foods’
  • Exploring the ‘bliss point’ and what you need to look out for in food
  • The impact of ultra-processed food on health
  • Tips on how to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods


In our busy lives where time is often limited, many of us find ourselves prioritising convenience over the nutritional quality of our food. In a society where ultra-processed foods (UPF) are readily available, easy to consume, and also heavily marketed towards us, it’s helpful to understand exactly which foods fall under the category of UPF and explore ways to reduce our reliance on them.

Before we delve in, it’s important to highlight that food processing isn’t necessarily the enemy here. Ultimately, we need a certain level of food processing in the food chain to make food accessible and convenient to our growing population. In light of this, let’s first establish the difference between ‘processed foods’ which can still play an important role in our diet, and UPF's which have little to no nutritional quality and can be harmful to our health.

'Processed foods' are ones that have been altered in some way from their original, whole form. This can include foods that have been frozen, canned, baked, milled, or had ingredients like salt, sugar, or preservatives added. This level of processing means we can access nutritious ingredients and cook freely with them amidst our busy schedules. It also helps retain the nutritional quality of ingredients as they make their way through supermarkets and onto our plates.

What is a UPF?

UPF’s undergo multiple stages of processing, in which the end product resembles very little of the raw ingredient it first came from. The priority of processing is often for commercial gain, such as improving flavour, texture and appearance in order to increase appeal and drive up sales. Sadly, we often find that UPFs have been stripped of any nutritional value, and pumped full of synthetic ingredients that can be harmful to our health. We also find that UPFs are often high in added sugars and trans fats, both of which negatively impact our metabolic health and general well being. Some examples of UPF include:

  • Frozen products such as chicken nuggets, fish fingers, frozen pizza
  • Ready-to-eat microwave meals
  • Instant meals such as packaged noodles and powdered soups
  • Packaged snacks and confectionery such as crisps, biscuits, cakes, sweets
  • Sweetened cereals 
  • Sugary beverages such as fizzy drinks, energy drinks, cordials 

The ‘bliss point’

This may be a term you haven’t heard before, but it describes the perfect combination of sugar, salt, fat and textures that makes a food item irresistible. Food manufacturers dedicate time and resources into finding the precise balance that triggers a release of dopamine in the brain, creating a pleasurable experience that keeps us coming back for more. Understanding the bliss point helps explain how UPFs can be so difficult to resist and so easy to overconsume, given the neurological pathways of pleasure that are created when exposed to them, which our brains seek out again and again.

Impact on health

High consumption of UPFs is a cause for concern, and there is a vast amount of research that highlights a strong association between UPF consumption and ill health. For example, a study from Spain among 19,899 people found that consuming more than four servings of UPFs each day was independently associated with a 62% increased risk of all-cause mortality, with each additional serving counting for a risk increase of 18% (1).

Reducing UPF consumption:

  • Read labels: Familiarise yourself with the ingredients list and nutritional information on the packet. Long ingredient lists consisting obscure ingredients and added sugars are a ref flag.
  • Cook from scratch: Opt for whole, minimally processed raw ingredients when preparing meals at home. Utilise quick and easy ingredients like eggs, frozen vegetables and tinned lentils to save on time.
  • Meal plan & batch-cook: Planning ahead and cooking in bulk for the freezer can mean there is always a healthy option available with minimal cooking (and time) required to make it.
  • Moderation: Enjoying ultra-processed foods occasionally is ok, but moderation is key to maintaining a balanced diet overall. Total avoidance can increase the temptation of a food.
  • Address emotional eating: In our emotional eating series we provide support with this, and your mentor will also be on hand to help overcome the habit of craving and eating UPF in response to challenging emotions and situations.
  • Stay hydrated: Sometimes, feelings of hunger are actually signs of dehydration. Drinking water can curb unnecessary snacking.

In summary:

Understanding UPFs in greater detail can help you navigate those tricky aisles of the supermarket. While the convenience of UPFs may be tempting and often pushed upon us by clever marketing, prioritising our long-term health and well-being and overcoming the lure of convenience is key.

Remember that many UPFs are designed to trick our senses into craving and over-consumption. Try to build a habit of reflection in the moment, in which you stop and assess whether there's a better alternative that aligns with your long-term health goals.

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  1. Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonça RD, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C, Bes-Rastrollo M. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2019 May 29;365:l1949. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l1949. PMID: 31142450; PMCID: PMC6538973.

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