Are Ultra Processed Foods Killing Us?

Transformational Nutrition ultra processed food

So, you have probably all read the hype about ‘ultra-processed’ foods leading to cancer and are probably panicking about the last meal you ate and how soon before you drop dead!!

But how true is all this media sensationalisation and what does it actually mean for you?

How true are the media headlines regarding ‘ultra processed foods’ and our health?

Ultra-processed’ De-mystified

Well let’s start by unpicking the truly terrifying term ‘ultra-processed’.  It comes from the NOVA classification which is a system used in Scientific research that ranks foods into 4 categories:

1) minimally or unprocessed,

2) processed ingredients,

3) processed foods

4) ultra-processed foods.

Transformational Nutrition hummus processed foodWhilst this is useful for researchers, it can be very confusing and misleading for public health advice.  Not only because the categories themselves are very vague but because foods with hugely varying nutrition profiles are lumped together, particularly in the 4th category.

For example, shop bought hummus, oatcakes and even yogurts are ‘ultra-processed’ alongside sweeties, cakes and margarine.

Tinned vegetables are ‘processed’ whereas fresh ones are ‘unprocessed’, yet they are equally nutritious.

Dried fruit is also classed as ‘minimally’ processed but can actually contain more sugar than sweets and biscuits in category 4!!!  Can you see where I am going with this….??

Furthermore, a 2012 study compared 100 shop bought ready meals (ultra-processed in case you’re wondering…) with 100 home cooked meals and guess what??The ready meals contained more fibre, less saturated fat and contributed more to your 5 a day.

The moral of the story?Don’t be mis-led by hyper loaded terminology and ‘loud’ media headlines.

The term ‘ultra processed’ may not be as straightforward, or as scary, as you may think.

The ‘evidence’

Transformational nutrition sensationalised media processed foodThis leads me on to the actual study that the media picked up on. It only actually examined the diets of people it followed for two years; cancer formation occurs over decades.  It is therefore quite possible that those later diagnosed were already in the early stages of cancer before commencing the study.

We also don’t know what food was consumed following the study so have no way of quantifying the effects of this.  It was what we call an ‘observational‘ study which means that no cause and effect can be concluded.

It is actually pretty impossible to do a trial that involves people eating ‘cancerous’ food for years and then checking the impacts of this on their health. Not to mention also eliminating any other factors such as smoking, exercise etc.  And then there is the question of ethics….

The reality is that we are using anecdotal information to draw hypothetical conclusions that are perceived as ‘truths’ because they make good headlines!!  The term ‘ultra-processing’ has powerful connotations; a journalist’s dream!

The headlines are based on observational research which does not equate to cause and effect.

What does this mean to you?

As there is not yet any concrete evidence to link cancer to ultra-processed foods, please don’t completely give up convenience and pleasure based on the media’s ability to play on your emotions.

Transformational Nutrition busy lifestylesThe reason this has become such an area of interest is that lifestyles have changed enormously over the last few decades and convenience foods are becoming more and more popular.  People no longer can, or have the desire, to spend hours cooking fresh meals from scratch every single day, and nor should they have to!

We want to spend more time socialising, spending time with our children after a long day at work…  Furthermore there is a social aspect attached to this; processed foods are often cheaper and more accessible.  So to demonise them is ludicrous!

The real issue is over consumption.  Ultra processed foods do tend to be higher in fat, sugar and salt so basing your diet on them is not a sensible approach.  Yet many of us are making poor food choices at every single meal because it is all too easy.  Some days it is easier to choose convenience foods but on the days you have more time and energy, choose more nutritious, unprocessed options.

You can enjoy the foods you love whilst still making sure you are giving your body all of the nutrients it requires.

The answer?

Eat everything in moderation; a little bit of what you fancy won’t kill you!  As with many nutritional debates these days, it all needs to be viewed in context; nothing is black and white.

If you are eating ‘ultra-processed’ foods all day, every day then this WILL have a negative impact on your health; a diet full of them is unbalanced regardless of the nutrition they do or do not contain. The devil is in the dose.

It should come as no surprise that a balanced diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein and unrefined carbohydrates is what we should all strive for.  I always recommend that my clients follow the 80/20 rule; 80% unprocessed, whole foods and 20% of what they fancy.  This allows them to get everything their bodies needs to function optimally without feeling deprived or miserable.


Transformational nutrition balance nutrition cancerTo sum up, the best way to prevent illness and disease is through a varied diet that doesn’t completely eliminate any food.

It is fundamentally very hard to separate your diet from the rest of your lifestyle.

Other habits such as smoking, over consumption of alcohol and lack of exercise could well be increasing your chances of developing cancer more than what you are eating.



This was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery, Evidence Based Nutrition Coach.