Sometimes, people need a quick and easy meal. Convenience matters, whether it’s eating a bowl of cereal before that early meeting or stuffing a granola bar in your bag to keep you going between classes. Unfortunately, many convenient, on-the-go foods are deemed unhealthy because of how they are made. Why?
Ultra-processed foods (UPF) understandably have a bad reputation for several reasons. UPFs tend to contain more added sugar and fat than minimally processed or unprocessed foods, resulting in greater calorie density, or in other words, more calories per bite. They also tend to be high in salt, which can raise blood pressure and make the foods more palatable so they’re easier to overeat! Lastly, they tend to be lacking many beneficial nutrients like fibre and vitamins.
There is also data supporting the idea that UPFs aren’t so good for us. Results from a recent study on UPF consumption and type 2 diabetes risk suggest that, as UPFs make up a more significant portion of one’s diet, the risk of T2D increases linearly. While this might have you thinking you need to swear off highly processed foods altogether, not all UPFs are created equal.
What are Ultra-Processed Foods?
UPFs are defined by the NOVA classification as foods produced primarily from substances extracted from whole foods such as sugar, salt, oil, and protein. UPFs can also be made using ingredients synthesized in a lab, such as flavour enhancers and artificial colouring. Examples include chips, fruit-flavoured yogurts, breakfast cereals, mass-produced bread, ham, sausages, ice cream, and many more. With this definition, a variety of foods that lead to different health effects can be classified as UPFs. While some UPFs seem worse than others, automatically labelling any food under this umbrella of UPFs as ‘unhealthy’ is not supported by evidence.
Are All Ultra-Processed Foods Unhealthy?
A recent publication of data from the Nurses’ Health Studies I & II and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study evaluated the impact of various UPFs on T2D risk. They found that breakfast cereals, whole grain bread, fruit-based products, packaged sweet snacks, packaged savoury snacks, and yogurt/dairy-based desserts were all associated with a lower risk of developing T2D. Conversely, refined bread, sauces/spreads, sweetened beverages, animal-based products, ready-to-eat mixed dishes, and “other UPFs” were associated with a higher risk.
Also, the magnitude of T2D risk differed substantially between UPFs. For example, UPFs with animal-based products and ready-to-eat mixed dishes were associated with the most significant risk, whereas breakfast cereals were associated with the most prominent risk reduction. Of note, breakfast cereal consumption has also been associated with a lower risk of total mortality and both whole-grain breakfast cereals and whole-wheat bread have been associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. So, while it may be a good general rule to limit UPFs in our diets, we can’t treat all UPFs the same. Otherwise, some healthy UPFs may get lumped with the less healthy options.
While it’s important to avoid automatically labelling all UPFs as death sentences, it’s equally important to remember that the dose matters. Occasional consumption of UPFs like ice cream and donuts is unlikely to have a significant impact on one’s chronic disease risk. Whereas daily consumption of other UPFs, including whole grain breakfast cereals and whole wheat bread can actually be quite healthful.
I hope this research provides some clarity to this often-misunderstood topic and helps settle concerns around foods like whole-grain breakfast cereals, which are certainly processed but can also be quite healthy for us. For additional guidance and support, Dr. Nagra is a plant-based doctor with the knowledge, expertise, and experience to help his patients develop a healthier way of eating. Get in touch today to learn more!
Dr. Matthew Nagra is a Naturopathic Doctor in Vancouver who is passionate about evidence-based nutrition and medicine. In addition to his online and public speaking work, he employs a wide range lifestyle interventions, including plant-based nutrition, as well as physical therapies in his practice to help his patients prevent or recover from chronic illnesses and physical injuries. Holding a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell University and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, he has penned several articles on the topic, underlining his specialized training in nutrition.