Ultra-processed foods: what are they and which are good or bad for your health?


Slashing your intake of ultra-processed foods could reduce dementia risks, a study has found.

Scientists suggested that early prevention could be achieved by cutting out some packaged, tinned, and mass-produced products.

But health experts have warned there is a danger of villainizing all ultra-processed foods as bad when that “could not be further from the truth”. The group has now urged the UK Government against including ultra-processed foods in national dietary guidelines.

Bridget Benelam, a spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation, said: “For many of us, when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish-fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly.

“These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.

“It’s great if you can cook from scratch when you have time, but I know for me, as a working parent, it’s often not an option.

“We need to make healthy eating easier and more affordable, not more difficult and expensive.”

In a previous study, of 10,000 Brazilians over 10 years, results suggested that a regular diet of ultra-processed foods comprising more than 20 per cent of your daily calorie intake can lead to loss of cognitive function.

Here is everything we know:

What are ultra-processed foods?

The British Heart Foundation defines ultra-processed food as products that “typically have five or more ingredients” and have “industrial substances” such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial flavours.

Examples include sausages, ice cream, breakfast cereals, fizzy drinks, ready-made meals, and some alcoholic drinks, including gin, rum, and whisky.

The only sure way to find out whether a product is ultra-processed is by looking at the packaging label. If you see a long list of ingredients that you don’t recognise, it is likely to be heavily processed. Other red flags include high fat, sugar, and salt content, a suspiciously long shelf life (with the exception of UHT milk), and aggressively strong branding.

Those who consumed these foods on a regular basis had a 25 per cent faster decline in executive functioning — mental skills including memory and self-control.

For the minimum recommendation of 2,000 calories a day, eating 400 calories in ultra-processed foods would hit the 20 per cent limit.

Which foods are best for cognitive function?

Mediterranean diets have been noted for possibly reducing dementia risks, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

There is some evidence that unprocessed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, and legumes, help reduce the chance of developing memory and reasoning problems later in life.

The typical Mediterranean diet is also low in red meat, sugar, and saturated fats such as butter, lard, and ghee.

Antioxidants from fruit and vegetables can prevent or delay certain types of cell damage to the brain.

Along with higher levels of protein, inflammation caused by chemical changes in the brain’s immune system can also be reduced.

Studies have shown that this lifestyle is associated with lower rates of heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, and strokes.

What ultra-processed foods are not all bad?

Top nutrition experts have claimed that it is wrong to give all ultra-processed items a bad name. The British Nutrition Foundation says that foods like baked beans, fishfingers, and wholemeal bread can all form part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.

Other items which are said to be fine as part of a healthy diet are wholegrain cereals, fruit yoghurts, and pasta sauces which are tomato-based.

The BNF charity said: “They are a source of ‘important nutrients’, as well as being ‘convenient and affordable’.”

What are the signs of dementia?

The following symptoms are signs of declining cognitive function, which can be caused by cellular damage to the brain:

  • Memory loss of recent events

  • Issues with thinking or reasoning, including an inability to follow conversations

  • Inexplicable mood swings

  • Feelings of disorientation, even in familiar environments

These are not normal signs of aging and, if you have these symptoms, you should see a GP or practitioner.