The Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid & Simple Swaps To Know
The Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid & Simple Swaps To Know

The Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid & Simple Swaps To Know

Ultra-processed food (UPF) has been making headlines recently, and with good reason. Despite being linked to countless health problems including diabetes, obesity and gut issues, UPFs still account for 57% of our total food intake in the UK. Part of the problem is, UPFs aren’t just junk foods by another name; they also include breakfast cereals, protein bars and plant milks. To find out more – including the simple swaps to make for better health – we asked four experts to answer our questions.
By Tor West

First, what exactly is ultra-processed food?

“Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are products made by the food industry to create convenience – think breakfast cereals, commercial bread and bread products, biscuits, cakes, snacks, crisps, frozen pizza, vegan convenience foods, muesli bars, canned drinks and more. These foods are usually foods that provide ease – they are quick to buy, cook or consume. They usually come in plastic trays, tubs or pouches or enclosed in cardboard boxes. As a rule of thumb, if a food contains an ingredient you don’t recognise, or contains something you wouldn’t have in your kitchen, it’s highly likely it’s a UPF.” – Dominique Ludwig, nutritionist

How do they differ to processed foods?

“Most processed foods are generally recognisable as their original form – think canned fish or tinned fruit in syrup. They contain a smaller number of ingredients, mostly those often found in your store cupboard. For example, even though it’s been processed, fresh bread is made with flour, yeast, salt and water – all ingredients you’ll have at home. An ultra-processed loaf of bread will also contain additives and E-numbers designed to make a product taste better and give it a longer shelf life. Drying, milling and canning are all examples of processing of food – but these processes do not change the nutrition content of the food significantly or the way our bodies process them.” – Dominique

Check the food you’re buying has no MORE THAN FIVE INGREDIENTS. If it’s more than this, IT’S LIKELY ULTRA-PROCESSED.

Why are these foods bad for us?

“According to recent research, our brains start to rewire when we consume large amounts of UPFs – the result is that we want to eat more, similar foods to feel satiated, as well as hit the dopamine (reward) centres in our brain. In short, we become overfed but undernourished – because UPFs are addictive. When we eat food in its natural state, we need to chew it more to break it down. The presence of fibre, protein and fat also mean we can’t absorb all the calories from our food, and we use more energy breaking it down. The opposite is true for UPFs. They also enter the bloodstream more quickly, leading to sugar spikes, increased fat storage, inflammation and imbalanced hormones. I see a significant number of adults with very low omega-3 levels, and this is often down to UPFs. These essential fats are critical for a healthy brain and reducing inflammation. There are also certain nutrients that are harder to obtain on a highly processed diet, such as B vitamins, iron, zinc, iodine, selenium and magnesium – nutrients that are essential for energy production, detoxification and brain and thyroid function. Plus, UPFs are often low in fibre and protein, both of which are important for promoting feelings of fullness and satiety.” – Dominique 

Are there any specific ingredients we should be cautious of?

“Many UPFs are made with unhealthy fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, which can increase the risk of heart disease. Trans fats are known to raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and lower good cholesterol levels (HDL). UPFs often contain artificial sweeteners, and regular consumption of these chemicals has been linked to a greater risk of heart and circulatory diseases. What’s more, over-consumption of products that contain artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame) can have a highly damaging effect on the delicate gut microbiome. Disrupting the good bacteria in the gut can result in bloating, discomfort, weight gain and an increased risk of chronic disease.” – Dr Caitlin Hall, chief dietitian & head of clinical research at Myota

Here, the experts share their tips for cutting back and cleaning up your diet for better health…


Start Small

“Swapping one UPF item a week for a more nutritious alternative is a good place to start. For example, swap a processed meat sandwich for an egg mayo or tuna sandwich, or make your own sandwich at home with leftover roast chicken. If you love fruit yoghurts, swap them for natural yoghurt and add your own fruit or fruit compote.” – Elizabeth Cooper, nutritionist at Bio-Kult


Make Your Own Sauces

“Pre-bottled sauces – like pasta and stir-fry sauces – tend to be high in sugar, salt and additives. Cooking them from scratch will mean you avoid these hidden ingredients. Make a big batch and freeze in individual portions for quick and easy future meals.” – Elizabeth


Be Careful With Protein Bars

“If you rely on sweetened protein bars and chocolate-based snacks to get a sweet fix, make your own energy balls with dates, nuts and cocoa powder. This will give you a sweet hit while providing adequate sources of fibre and nutrients like magnesium, polyphenols and iron.” – Jenna Hope, registered nutritionist


Visit Your Butcher

“If sausages, hot dogs and burgers are your thing, buy high-quality meat from a reputable butcher who sells grass-fed meat, which is higher in healthy omega-3 fats.” – Elizabeth


Use A Slow Cooker

“If you rely on ready meals, get into the habit of making bolognese, chilli and curries in a slow cooker. Adding in plant proteins like lentils or beans, or even swapping them for some of the meat, will also increase your fibre intake.” – Elizabeth


Get Creative

“Swap ready-prepared or takeaway pizzas for a shop-bought base and add your own ingredients – tomato paste, mozzarella and vegetables like onion, peppers and mushrooms. Add a homemade mixed salad on the side to increase your plant foods.” – Elizabeth


Opt For Sourdough

“Try to buy bread from a quality bakery. Sourdough is a good choice as it contains only two or three ingredients and takes some chewing, which releases appetite-related hormones that stop you from overeating.” – Elizabeth


Rethink Breakfast

“Breakfast cereals are one of the most common UPFs. Swap for overnight oats, porridge or eggs. When it comes to lunch, pop your sandwich filling into a cooked sweet potato or half an avocado instead of bread.” – Dominique


Steer Clear Of Vegetable Oils

“Get into the habit of checking for highly refined vegetable oils – such as sunflower oil – on ingredients lists. These oils are processed and inflammatory. Use extra virgin olive oil as much as possible, and make your own dressing with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and mustard, keeping in a jam jar in the fridge. This is a far more nutritious alternative to shop-bought salad dressing.” – Dominique


Avoid The Rainbow Aisles

“These are the aisles in the supermarket filled with brightly coloured packaging designed to be tempting. Spend most of your time in the fresh aisles of the supermarket picking up real food. An apple should look like an apple, and a chicken should resemble a chicken.” – Dominique


Always Read The Label

“Ideally, check the food you’re buying has no more than five ingredients. If it’s more than this, it’s likely ultra-processed. Make sure you can read the ingredients list easily out loud, too. Difficult pronouncing an ingredient – like the sweetener ‘acesulfame K’ – should be a red flag. Ensure you recognise all the ingredients as foods you have cooked with or eaten before.” – Dominique 

For more from the experts, visit,, &


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