Do you fondly recall the delicious home-cooked food you ate as a child? Well, new studies suggest that grandma’s meals weren’t just tasty; they were also better for you than some of the food we eat today. 

Research shows that a diet high in ultra-processed food is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. In the UK alone, the average person now gets around 56% of their calories from ultra-processed food. Unfortunately, you can’t tell if food is ultra-processed just by looking at it, and some of the snacks and meals you might think of as ‘healthy’ can fall into this category.

What is ultra-processed food?

NOVA is a food classification system developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers. It groups food into 4 categories:

Unprocessed or minimally processed food

Food in its natural state or dried, crushed, frozen or boiled, for example, meat, fish, eggs, fruit, milk, vegetables and nuts.

Processed culinary ingredients

Includes oils, butter, vinegar, salt and sugar; ingredients that are usually eaten with or used to prepare unprocessed foods in category 1.

Processed food

Food that has been prepared to extend its life or improve its flavour in a way that you could do at  home. For example, smoked or cured meat or fish, cheese and bread.

Ultra-processed food

These foods contain ingredients that you don’t usually use when you’re cooking at home, like artificial colourings, emulsifiers, sweeteners and preservatives. This includes many breakfast cereals and pre-packaged meals.

How to spot ultra-processed food

You’ll need to read ingredient lists to check for those added elements like artificial colourings, emulsifiers, sweeteners and preservatives. Pay particular attention to ingredients that are difficult to pronounce and general terms such as ‘flavour enhancer’, which can be used to disguise additives.  

Simple steps to eating well

  • Aim to cook at least 2 meals from scratch each week
  • Plan your meals ahead and write a shopping list based on your meal schedule.
  • If you need reading glasses, take them with you when you shop so that you can check ingredients
  • Choose fresh or unprocessed frozen food wherever possible
  • We tend to make healthier choices when we have company—the perfect excuse to dine with friends and family when you can

Take the food variety challenge!

How many different fresh and colourful plant-based foods do you eat each week? Could you be eating a wider variety of fruit, grains and vegetables?

Note down each time you eat food that comes from a different plant. Here are some examples to show you how it works:

  • Red and white onions count as 2 different plant-based foods
  • Bread and pasta count as 1, because they’re both wheat
  • Different types of oil and each different herb count as a different type

Spice things up with a dash of competition! Challenge your friends and family to see who can eat the highest number of different plant-based foods in a month.

Learn more about the link between your diet and your wellbeing with our free nutrition courses.

With thanks to Nutritionial Therapist, Sarah Dodd, who was inspired by an idea from Miguel Toribio-Mateas