How bad are ultra-processed foods?

What are ultra-processed foods, and what are they doing to us?
29 June 2021


A supermarket aisle empty of people.



Are ultra-processed foods the worst foods you could eat?


Geneticist Giles Yeo had the details on ultra-processed food...

Giles - Okay. So first of all, people think that processed food is bad, but cooking is a process. Fermenting is a process. So yoghurt is a processed food. Bread is a processed food. Processed foods have been around forever. Ultra-processed foods, however, are foods that undergo industrial processing that we are not able to replicate in our kitchens or in normal restaurants. So these include extrusion,  and washing the carcass of an animal with a high pressure washer and then heating the stuff up into pink slime, that kind of stuff. That is ultra-processed food - but is it the worst food we can eat?

Chris - I mean, you could argue that cyanide would probably be the worst food you could eat. That probably would be arguably worse for you.

Giles - But is it a food though?

Chris - If it goes in and you eat it intending to feed yourself on it, then I suppose you could regard it as food. You've eaten it. The outcome wouldn't be good...

Giles - So I guess ultra-processed foods... okay. I was going to say, they're not toxic to us. They clearly are toxic to us at a certain dose, but most things are, but ultra-processed foods are not poisonous. So in other words, if you had a little bit of ultra-processed food, it's not going to kill you, it's because we're having too much of it. So the question is why. I think the primary reason is because when you ultra-process a food, a number of things tend to happen. You tend to strip out protein and/or fibre, depending on the type of food you're eating. And you tend to remove flavour, which means you have to add flavour back in. Flavour comes from sugar, fat, salt. These are the holy trinity; yhis is where all flavour comes from. And so ultra-processed  foods tend to be lower in protein and fibre. And so therefore are very calorically available, which means that we're able to extract far more calories from it than unprocessed foods, and tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. So that is what an ultra-processed food is. And therefore they tend to be bad for you. They tell you you don't want to eat too much ultra-processed foods. Is it the worst food you could have? It depends how much ultra-processed food you're eating. I mean, if you ate an entire stick of butter, I don't think that's going to be great for you, and butter is not an ultra-processed  food. And if you ate too many carrots, then you can actually end up turning orange and have this carrot poisoning. And that's not a good thing either. So I think the dose makes the poison. It just so happens in the UK, in North America, we get 50% of our calories at the moment from ultra-processed  foods. The problem with ultra-processed foods is the dose that we are actually getting them at.


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