Understanding ultra-processed foods: What you need to know

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In a world full of social media food trends and advice from online nutritionists, a new term is causing confusion—ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

While we’ve long known about the dangers of junk food, many people still don’t understand UPFs.

UPFs are more than just junk food; they have sneaked into our diets, even in seemingly healthy choices. That energy bar you grab for a boost or your favorite breakfast cereal could be ultra-processed without you knowing.

My new research focuses on raising awareness about UPFs in Australia and will offer recommendations on how to best communicate with consumers about them.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods like bananas, cucumbers, fresh fish, and raw unsalted nuts. These foods retain their vitamins and nutrients and are in or close to their natural state.

Processed foods are changed from their natural state by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Examples include canned fish, canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, and bread. Most processed foods have only two or three ingredients.

Ultra-processed foods, however, have many industrial ingredients like emulsifiers, sugars, salt, harmful fats, and artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. UPFs are typically ready-to-eat, affordable, heavily marketed, and conveniently packaged. Think of fast foods, soft drinks, some fruit juices, pre-packaged snacks, and sweet breakfast cereals.

The Problem with UPFs

UPFs are usually high in calories, low in essential nutrients, and contain additives that can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and gut health issues. Despite their large portions, they often lack fiber, making you feel hungry again sooner.

How common are UPFs in our diets?

My previous research suggests many Australians are unknowingly consuming too many UPFs, leading to chronic health issues. UPFs make up a huge 42% of the Australian diet. This high consumption leads to excessive intake of salt, refined sugar, and unhealthy fats, increasing the risk of heart disease—the leading cause of death in Australia.

Our team at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) found a direct link between UPF consumption and obesity, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). High UPF consumers have a 61% higher risk of obesity than low consumers. UPF consumption is higher among young people and lower-income groups, who are more susceptible to CVD.

Research from 2023 led by Dr. Melissa Lane at Deakin University found a link between high UPF diets and an increased risk of depression. People whose diets are over 30% UPFs have a 23% higher risk of depression compared to those who eat the least UPFs.

The current Australian dietary guidelines do not specifically address the harms of UPFs. Our research shows that UPFs are often misrepresented in the media. Foods like plant-based milks, flavored yogurts, and ready-to-heat meals are sometimes seen as healthy but can be ultra-processed.

Research by former IPAN Ph.D. student Sarah Dickie found that three-quarters of UPFs display a Health Star Rating of 2.5 stars or more. This rating can mislead consumers into thinking these foods are healthier than they really are.

There is a growing recognition that public policies need to focus on reducing UPF consumption. The Australian Academy of Science’s nutrition plan highlights increasing nutrition literacy as key to reducing chronic disease.

Our new project aims to tailor messages about UPFs to better inform dietary guidelines, media, and professional practices. We are surveying 1,000 adults to understand their knowledge of UPFs. This will help us design a framework for effective health messages.

Working with health communicators, UPF experts, and the IPAN Consumer Network, we will test these messages to ensure they effectively raise awareness about UPFs.

With healthier lifestyle and dietary choices, many risk factors for CVD and other chronic diseases can be prevented. Our work aims to help people understand the dangers of UPFs and support policies that target these foods.

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