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The Great UPF (Ultra Processed Food) Debate

What's in your basket ? Photograph: Premier Foods/PA

Not sure if you noticed in the press recently that the National Food Strategy has been published? It’s the first independent review of the UK’s entire food system for 75 years. There are some alarming statistics contained in the report because, as you can probably guess, as a nation we are eating a pretty poor diet and are packing too many pounds. 28% of adults in England are obese and a further 36% are overweight and that has huge ramifications for our long term health outcomes.

One of the main focuses of the report is UPFs or Ultra Processed Foods. Time was that we simply talked about ‘processed foods’ and the advice was to minimise them in our diet. But some processed foods are actually fine. Milk is processed (it’s pasteurized which is a process) but this simply makes it safe to drink. Cheese, without any processing, would just be milk and fruit and vegetables are cleaned and cut before being frozen, again this is considered processing.

So, 'processed food’ simply means any food that has undergone a change before it's ready to be sold. Ultra Processed Food, on the other hand, refers to processed foods that typically contain added sugar, preservatives, artificial flavours and colours.

Take bread for example. We tend not to think of bread as being a ‘processed’ food but it’s worth checking the ingredients list. If it’s made simply from flour, water, salt and yeast no problem, but once emulsifiers, preservatives and colourings are added it shifts into UPF territory.

For those of us concerned with healthy eating it can be surprising how many items in our shopping trolley might actually be UPFs. Apart from the obvious ones like frozen pizza, crisps, cakes, biscuits and ready meals we need to consider anything that comes in a jar, bottle or packet. Here's a list of UPFs you might not have considered …

Marmite – Made of a processed yeast extract and added salt among other things. But, it does also contain added vitamins including B12, which is useful for vegans and vegetarians.

Baked beans – On the plus side they are high in fibre, but they can contain quite a lot of added sugar and sodium. Try and buy the low sugar variety if poss.

Fish fingers – Let’s face it we’ve all relied on the fallback fish finger, but it’s super easy to make your own fish goujons instead. A quick win!

Bottled salad dressings – Often contain thickeners (emulsifiers), added sugar and preservatives. It’s an absolutely doddle to make your own salad dressing so don’t go slopping shop-bought ones onto your nice healthy salad!

Pasta sauces and soups – OK, I think most of us keep an emergency jar of Dolmio in the cupboard just in case, but making up batches of pasta sauce and soup is definitely the way forward.

Milk alternatives – Non-dairy milks have rocketed in popularity in recent years but unless you have a lactose issue there’s really no reason to avoid milk. If you are a fan of alternative milks be sure to check the ingredients, one own-brand almond milk from a UK supermarket contained only 2% almonds along with tricalcium phosphate, salt, stabilisers (carob gum, gellan gum) and emulsifier (sunflower lecithins).

Now, I know that for some people giving up Marmite (you either love it or hate it!) just isn’t going to happen, me included. And actually, there’s no need to. Just be mindful of the UPFs you consume on a regular basis and eat in moderation. Knowledge is power so just remember to check the ingredients.

Happy eating.

Sam x

P.S. I'd love to hear in the comments what you think on this topic and any ingenious ideas you have for minimising UPFs.

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