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Confusion around ‘ultra-processed foods’

UK research shows there is confusion around the increasingly used term ‘ultra-processed foods’.

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is increasingly used in research on diet and health, with headlines suggesting consuming these foods leads to increased risk of disease. Yet, a new survey from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) suggests that people find it difficult to distinguish between foods classed as ultra-processed and other processed foods.

The term ultra-processed foods (UPF) is usually based on a food classification method called NOVA (a name not an acronym) which defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives. (Read our article on UPF here)

Survey result highlights:

  • More than one fifth of the survey respondents (21 percent) said that a healthy, balanced diet shouldn't include any ultra-processed foods.
  • There was a lack of understanding of which foods are classified as ‘ultra-processed’.
  • Most people did not identify canned baked beans, low fat fruit yoghurt, packaged bread, ready-made pasta sauces and breakfast cereals with added sugar as UPF, but they are classified by NOVA as ultra-processed.

Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation, says: “Many foods that would be classified as ultra-processed may not be recognised as such and, while many ultra-processed foods are not healthy options, this isn't always the case… ultra-processed foods can include sliced wholemeal bread and vegetable-based pasta sauces which can be a useful part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

Fifty three percent of respondents agreed that a healthy, balanced diet can include some processed foods and 49 percent said that processed foods can be convenient and help save time.

Stanner continues: “There can be a very judgmental attitude towards processed foods, implying that you cannot be eating well if your diet is not made up entirely from 'real food' that is cooked from scratch. But most foods we eat are processed in some way and processed foods help a lot of us to prepare meals within the limited time and budget we have. And just because something is homemade does not necessarily make it a healthy option – recipes vary widely from the very healthy to the very indulgent. What we should really be concerned about is how healthy a food is overall, and the balance of our diet as a whole.”

About the research

The research was conducted by YouGov on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation. 2127 adults from across Britain were surveyed between 22 – 24 January 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Research invitation for nutrition professionals in Australia

The Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney are undertaking a study of the understanding and attitudes to ultra-processed foods and the NOVA system within nutrition professionals in Australia. They are inviting professionals to complete the brief online survey which has USYD ethical approval (2020/713). The study closes in mid-August.

The link to participate is:


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