19 October 2020

Ultra-processed foods - a massive problem with simple solutions

Food processing of itself is not necessarily a problem. Simple cooking qualifies as food processing. However, the degree to which our foods are processed is certainly a big problem. Ultra-processed foods are disastrous – for our health and for our environment – and yet they make up 42% of the Australian diet. You are probably eating more of them than you realize.

But good news. There are simple solutions. So this week we identify the problem and list how you can avoid one of the biggest and most obvious current threats to your health and the environment; but first with Spring in Australia well underway

Thought for the day

Evocative Japanese tree-related words

Yūgen (幽玄), which refers to 

A feeling or mood in which one intuits 

The universe possesses a mysterious and elusive beauty

Shinrin-yoku (森林浴), which quite literally means 

Bathing in the ambient atmosphere of a forest

Komorebi (木漏日), which translates as 

The interplay between light and leaves 

When sunlight shines through an arbour of trees

Consider this. Not only is cooking food processing; drying foods, grinding foods, mixing foods – all are food processing. Most of what most people eat is processed to some degree, but Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are something else!

What are Ultra-processed foods?

These are foods that come ready to eat with added ingredients not commonly found in your kitchen or even an artisan restaurant. They are likely to include cosmetic additives and emulsifiers to change colour, texture and storage life. They will have been highly processed.

UPFs are often rich in sugar, soy, grains and meats that have been broken down and processed. 

Commonly they will lack “intact” ingredients like vegetables, fruit and legumes.

UPFs are produced by large scale food corporations and fast food companies. They are heavily marketed, made available widely and are usually cheap. All of this conspires to make them over consumed.

Examples of UPFs 

Sugary drinks, confectionery, mass-produced breads, margarine, packet chips and other snack foods, fried chips, sweetened dairy products, processed meats, chicken nuggets, and frozen desserts. 

The most commonly eaten UPFs in the UK are:

Industrialised bread (11 %)

Pre-packaged meals (7.7%)

Breakfast cereals (4.4%)

Sausages and other reconstituted meat products (3.8 per cent)

These are closely followed by the expected confectionery (3.5%, biscuits (3.5%), pasties, buns and cakes (3.3%) and industrial chips (2.8%). 

Soft drinks, fruit drinks and fruit juices make up 2.5% of the average calorie intake. Salty snacks, including Britain’s favourite crisps, make up 2% of our calories, as do sauces, dressings and the Sunday favourite gravy (2.1%).

How prevalent are UPFs?

As stated, UPFs currently make up a whopping 42% of the Australian diet. In the USA it is 58%, UK 56%, Spain 32%, France 27%. 

Supermarkets are full of UPFs. 

Most fast foods ARE UPFs.

In Australia, for those on middle to higher incomes, the figure drops to 20% but for middle to low income people the figure is growing by 10% each year. 

Australia reflects a common pattern – amongst our UPF consumers, the 20% who eat the most actually have 80% UPFs in their diet, while the lowest 20% have “only” 17%. 

Children, adolescents and those on lower incomes are recognised as the highest consumers.

What is the problem?

Research into the impacts of UPFs is still in early days, but what is known is the over consumption of ultra-processing actually displaces – as in replaces – the nutritional qualities of fresh healthy foods.

Worse, UPFs are associated with higher risks of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, frailty, depression and death. 

All the chronic degenerative diseases are linked to nutritional problems, and UPFs have to be one of the major identifiable risk factors.

Additives in UPFs carry risks in their own right. They can seriously and adversely affect our gut bacteria, increase inflammation and meta-inflammation and disrupt our hormones.

Then there is the environment. 

UPFs are commonly highly packaged, often in plastics and these plastics are one of the highest sources of marine plastic pollution.

To top it all off, UPFs seem to be quite addictive for many consumers!

Why have we not heard more about this?

“Nutritionism”. Or “nutritional reductionism”. 

Over the last century, nutritional science has focussed upon so-called “good” and “bad” ingredients; reducing nutritional conversations to focus upon the quantities of individual ingredients like how much protein or calcium is in a given product.  Seems to make sense. Identify the unhealthy elements and remove them; add more of the good stuff. 

Problem is, this approach neglects other characteristics of foods - and how they work together; and it minimises the adverse effects of processing.

Not surprisingly the food industry has massively promoted and supported this reductionist approach. 

It has allowed them to hide a good deal for many years. However, as we in the public become more food aware, the companies have used this same approach to reformulate their UPFs. 

By claiming a product has one feature such as “low salt” or “whole grain” for example, they overlook the impact of ultra-processing and falsely claim the new product to be “healthy”. 

Also, they fortify UPFs by adding individual ingredients like Omega 3 oils or popular ingredients like zinc or a particular herb and feature these ingredients prominently on labels which become essentially misleading.

What to do?

Personally it is easy. 

Do all possible to avoid UPFs. 

Best advice? 

Make most of your own meals at home and make them from raw or minimally processed ingredients. 

Be very selective when buying breads. It is possible to purchase good quality, low-processed breads, but so many qualify as UPFs and are bad news. 

Read your labels – although some UPFs manage to even avoid these! Read the ingredient list rather than the nutritional profile.

Also remember –, if you are well it is what you eat mostly that is important. What you eat occasionally (within reason) is not such a big deal. Look after your home kitchen well, and then if you go out, be somewhat selective, but relax and enjoy. 

On the other hand, if you are dealing with significant illness, what you eat all the time is important. Then when you have recovered, you can relax as above.


We are way past the time when we can afford to be passive. 

The health of our community and the health of our planet demands we become more socially active. 

We need to consider how we can make our voices heard. 

We do need to share this sort of information with our families, friends and colleagues. 

We do need to write to and lobby our politicians and decision makers, pushing for new laws and regulations that will tax UPFs, introduce marketing restrictions and remove these products from schools.

The food industry heavily lobbies against such changes. Yet the UK and Mexico now have a sugar tax. Politicians need to know they have strong support from us, the people who vote them into office and empower them to make good choices.

More details?

Check this really excellent talk from Assoc Prof Gyorgy Scrinis, School of Agriculture and Food, University of Melbourne. This provided the basis for this post and would be ideal to share with anyone interested to watch something very measured, very well presented on this topic – highly, highly recommended!   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQn4TzEV7rU

Or this article on The Conversation 

For nutritional information, there is good detail for everyone in my book You Can Conquer Cancer, or you can search what interests you on this blog, for example – Is soy safe? 1 and 2, Coconut oil, Magnesium, Nutritional research and so on.


  1. As usual, wonderful advice Ian. I've had 17 extra years of life eating your way 99% of the time, and I'm looking forward to many more. For the first two years after a reoccurrence of cancer, and after being told I had six months to live, I followed your healing diet without exception. Now I have the occasional night out, but the rest of the time I really enjoy simple home cooked food. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know what I'm eating and how good it makes me feel.
    Thank you Ian and Ruth. Val

  2. Fantastic article full of lots of goodness. Thanks so much.

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