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Can ultra-processed foods be part of a healthy diet?

A new survey released by the British Nutrition Foundation shows that concern about ultra-processed foods has increased. But some ultra-processed foods can be part of a balanced diet and can help busy people get healthier meals on the table.

The recent survey, which was carried out by YouGov, looked at British adults’ views on processed foods and was previously carried out in 2021. Compared to 2021, more people had heard of the term ‘ultra-processed food’ (46% vs 30%) and were trying to reduce these foods in their diet (33% vs 25%).

The term ultra-processed foods is usually based on a food classification method called NOVA. This defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives. The ultra-processed category includes a wide range of foods and drinks. Many of these are less healthy options that we are already advised to reduce in the diet such as sugary drinks, cakes, ice creams, pastries, sweets, takeaway fried chicken or deep pan pizza. But foods like sliced wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, baked beans, tomato-based pasta sauces and fruit yogurts are also usually classified as ultra-processed and these can be a convenient and affordable source of some important nutrients.

Bridget Benelam, a British Nutrition Foundation spokesperson explained, “For many of us when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly. These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.”

The top 5 foods that people thought were classed as ultra-processed from a list in the recent survey were:

  • Ready meals (50%)
  • Vegetarian meat alternatives (41%)
  • Shop bought burgers (32%)
  • Packaged breakfast cereals with added sugar (32%)
  • Shop bought sausages (30%)

However, fewer people classified baked beans (9%), low-fat fruit yogurts (10%), ice cream (14%), and sliced bread (19%) as ultra-processed.

The survey also found that, while most people agreed that it was better to cook from scratch than to use processed foods (68%), nearly half agreed that a healthy balanced diet can include some processed foods (49%) and that processed foods can be convenient to save time preparing food (49%).

Benelam continued “It’s great if you can cook from scratch when you have time, but I know for me, as a working parent it’s often not an option. We need to make healthy eating easier and more affordable, not more difficult and expensive. Choosing healthier processed foods is one way that can help people fit healthy eating into their lives”.

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