What are ultra processed foods?

Profile picture of Iona Bell
Specialist Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
29 September 2023
Next review due September 2026

In the UK, it’s estimated that over half of our calories come from ultra processed foods. But what are ultra processed foods? And how can they impact our health? In this article, I’ll look at what counts as an ultra processed food, what the health risks are, and how to avoid eating too many of them.

two pieces of toast on a plate with a stick of butter next to it

What is an ultra-processed food?

Food can be organised into different groups based on how processed they are. This is known as the NOVA food classification system. There are four main categories as described below.

Category one: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed, or minimally processed foods, have no added ingredients. Minimally processed foods are natural foods that have been altered by a process. For example, this could include removing an inedible part of a plant.  

Unprocessed foods include:

  • fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables
  • legumes such as peas and lentils
  • meat excluding bacon, sausages and other processed forms
  • seafood
  • eggs
  • milk

Category two: Processed culinary ingredients

A processed culinary ingredient isn’t usually eaten alone but is added to foods in group one to make a meal or add flavour. Examples include salt, sugar, honey, and oils.

Category three: Processed foods

A processed food combines foods in category one and category two and have two to three ingredients.

Some examples of processed foods include:

  • cheeses
  • freshly made bread
  • smoked, and cured meats
  • tinned fruits and vegetables

Processed foods can provide you with many key nutrients and can be a healthy part of your diet. For example, unsweetened yoghurt is classed as a processed food, but it also provides you with calcium and protein.

Category four: Ultra processed foods

An ultra processed food is one which typically has five or more ingredients. You might not recognise the names of some of the ingredients in these foods. This is because they often include sweeteners, chemicals, colourings, and preservatives.

Some examples of ultra processed foods include:

  • mass produced packaged bread, pastries, cakes and biscuits
  • breakfast cereals
  • carbonated drinks
  • fruit flavoured yogurts
  • sausages and bacon
  • ready meals

What are the health risks of ultra processed foods?

Ultra processed food tends to be high in calories, salt, sugar, and saturated fats. They’re also usually low in vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

Ultra processed foods are easy to overeat because they are designed to taste good. If you regularly eat a lot of these foods, it could lead to overweight or obesity.

Studies have shown that consuming a lot of ultra processed foods over a long time can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

It’s also thought that the ingredients used in ultra processed foods (such as stabilisers and emulsifiers) could also be negatively impacting the gut microbiome. But more research needs to be done to fully understand how these foods affect our bodies.

How do you avoid ultra processed foods?

The best approach is to cook as much of your food as you can. This means you’re likely to use more fresh and minimally processed ingredients. However, even when you prepare food at home it’s important to think about the type of ingredients you’re using.

For example, try to choose fresh bread from the bakery instead of buying a pre-packaged loaf. Or you could try and make your own! This means the ingredients are less likely to contain extra additives and emulsifiers.

Processed foods such as tinned tomatoes, natural yogurt, and cheese can be a nutritious addition to your diet when you eat them in moderation. The key is to try and choose processed foods with as few (especially unrecognisable) ingredients as possible. When you buy snacks, try to choose options such as dried fruit, oatcakes, and nuts.

Ultra processed foods can be hard to avoid, but it’s important to try to choose less processed, healthier options when possible.

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Profile picture of Iona Bell
Iona Bell
Specialist Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital



Julia Ebbens, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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