Cleaning up your diet: Tips for avoiding ultra-processed foods
Ultra processed foods are those which have undergone extensive processing – removing vital nutrients and adding preservatives, stabilisers, flavour enhancers and undesirable items such as sugar and salt. They are all around us and are marketed as quick, tasty, foods, from snacks and drinks to full meals.
While the odd treat is OK for most people, consuming these foods regularly has been shown to carry significant health risks; from weight gain to increased risk of heart problems and type 2 diabetes.
BBC panorama covered some of these risks in detail, which you can read about in our previous article, here.
How to spot ultra-processed foods
- A long ingredients list, containing items that you would not normally find at home - like casein, whey protein, hydrogenated oils, and maltodextrin - is one telltale sign.
- Another indicator is a long use-by or best-before date – ultra-processed foods contain additives to make them last much longer than is natural.
- Look out for anything that looks significantly different from its natural form – for example, fresh packaged raw chicken breasts or freshly frozen peas are minimally processed, whereas chicken nuggets and a tin of mushy peas indicate a high level of processing.
Reducing dependence on ultra-processed foods
The best strategy is to try and prepare meals from fresh ingredients where possible. If you are limited for time, plan to batch cook and freeze meals in smaller portions that can simply be reheated. The microwave is not the enemy – it is the processing that occurs during food manufacturing that is the issue. Some establishments offer freshly prepared frozen meals that are made by local people from fresh ingredients, which avoids industrial processing techniques. Recipe boxes can also be useful for those with limited cookery knowledge, as fresh ingredients and clear instructions are provided.
10 healthy swaps you can make today!
Commercial breakfast cereals can be replaced with simple rolled oats – just soak for an hour or so in your preferred milk or water and add honey to taste.
Instead of commercial fruit yogurt, use plain or Greek yoghurt. You can add chopped fresh fruit if you want more flavour. Whizz it up and freeze it for an alternative to ice cream!
Ditch squash drinks and get used to drinking water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, or infused with mint leaves or a herbal teabag
Swap processed, breaded chicken products for fresh grilled chicken breast
Instead of frozen chips, slice a baking potato and bake for 25 minutes in the oven with a little oil and salt
Instead of crisps try fresh popcorn - you can pop the kernels on the hob in any pan with a lid, with a bit of coconut fat or rapeseed oil
Cereal bars can be replaced with mixed nuts and fresh berries – these help keep blood sugar under control and are much better value than commercial ‘high protein’ bars
Ketchup can be replaced with homemade tomato salsa/dip – just reduce a can of tomatoes on the hob and add herbs to taste
Swap frozen pizza for homemade pizza using tomato puree, mozzarella and fresh toppings like mushrooms, onions and olives.
Even a home baked cake will have less ingredients than a shop bought one. Although cake isn’t specifically ‘healthy’ – home baking avoids additional ingredients like stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives found in shop bought cakes.