Five ways to cut out ultra-processed foods to improve your health

Do you really know how much of the food you eat is ultra-processed? Here’s how to tell if a food is ultra-processed and why these foods should be avoided.

Ultra-processed foods include many so-called healthy foods such as flavoured yoghurts, many breakfast cereals, microwaveable frozen meals, packaged breads, margarine, biscuits and snacks.

IPAN Research Fellow Dr Priscila Machado says ultra-processed food accounts for nearly half of what Australians eat, but that the health impacts of this type of food have rarely been studied here.

‘People are generally aware that junk food is bad for us but what is less understood is that ultra-processed foods also includes many everyday food products that we eat believing they are good for us,’ she says.

‘These foods contain cheap ingredients (sugars, oils and starches) with various additives (colours, flavours and emulsifiers) to imitate the taste, smell and appearance of whole food.

‘The ingredients often go through a series of industrial processes in which very little real food remains but they become highly palatable so people overeat them.’

And by eating these foods, we are not just risking obesity. Ultra-processed foods are associated with other chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and depression.

Dr Machado led an Australian-first study which found a strong link between Australians who eat large amounts of ultra-processed food and rates of obesity.

For the study, data was drawn from the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, part of the most recent Australian Health Survey. The survey looked at the eating habits of more than 7000 Australian adults aged 20 and older and typical health indicators such as height, weight and waist measurement.

The study revealed that people who ate lots of ultra-processed food were 61 per cent more likely to be obese. They were also more likely to have a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and larger waist circumference than people whose diets include less ultra-processed food.

Dr Machado hopes the findings will support new approaches to tackle the harms of ultra-processed food consumption in Australia and globally. She said current policies, such as the Health Star Rating and dietary guidelines, don’t consider the role of food processing.

Chemicals for lunch? Here’s how to avoid ultra-processed food.

1. Check the food label

If the product has sophisticated packaging, has health claims such as ‘added of vitamins and minerals’, or has a long list of chemical-sounding ingredients, it’s likely to be ultra-processed. The best way to confidently identify these foods is by reading the ingredients list. The presence of modified substances (e.g. hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, protein isolate, modified starch) and/or additives with cosmetic function (e.g. colours, flavours, emulsifiers, bulking and gelling agents) indicates that the product is ultra-processed.

2. Be mindful when shopping for food and eating out

Avoid shopping for food in places where only or mostly ultra-processed foods are being sold (e.g. convenience stores). Bear in mind that ultra-processed food companies and supermarkets often use strategies such as price discounts, products placement and high-profile marketing campaigns to stimulate impulsive buying and make these foods very attractive. Avoid eating at fast food restaurants. Instead, choose small local restaurants, cafes and bakeries that offer fresh food.

3. Improve or share your culinary skills

Working on your culinary skills involves planning, shopping, organisation of the kitchen, following recipes and cooking. If these steps fail, it’s easy to revert to eating ultra-processed foods as they are highly available and sometimes only require assembling or heating. Plan your meals based on unprocessed and minimally processed foods and make a shopping list. Start cooking or sharing recipes and skills with family members, friends and work colleagues. Culinary skills, like any other, will improve when practiced – and are more fun when done with others!

4. Transition away from ultra-processed foods

If processed foods are on high rotation in your diet, start to make small swaps throughout the day. For example, stop bringing a heat-and-eat packaged meal to work for lunch and instead take leftovers from dinner the night before. Ultra-processed foods are often sold as ‘snack foods’ and they are less satiating, making us eat more of them. If you have a good breakfast or lunch based on whole foods, you are less likely to snack during the day. Alternatively, swap a highly processed snack bar for some nuts.

5. Advocate for policies that support citizens to avoid ultra-processed foods

It’s difficult to avoid ultra-processed foods as they tend to be easily available, affordable, highly marketed and convenient. Governments can implement policies to create healthier and more sustainable environments, such as removing ultra-processed foods from schools and work canteens, restricting marketing directed at children, and including taxation and front-of-pack labels for these foods. It’s important that we all support policies that categorically target ultra-processed foods.