Nutrition in the News: Are Ultra-Processed Foods Actually Bad for You?

Ultra-processed foods have been a big nutritional news topic recently and tend to be a recurring talking point with discussion on their health credentials seemingly sparked every few months. Our nutrition team breaks it all down.

ultra-processed foods

“The Barbie cast got into shape by intermittent fasting and quitting ultra-processed foods, their trainer said’’.

Two trending topics of the moment crammed into a viral news story - one of which we’re experts in, the other we’d only like to think we are.

So, here’s a nutritionist’s take on what you need to know about ultra-processed foods, from the different categories of food processing down to whether all processing is as inherently bad for you as Barbie’s PT would like you to believe.

What is food processing?

The term ‘food processing’ refers to any method or technique that takes place once a food is harvested to prepare it for consumption, cooking, or storing. Unless you’re munching on home-grown broccoli, nearly all of the food that we enjoy daily has gone through some sort of processing. The steps can amplify flavours, prolong shelf life and add to the convenience.

How are processed foods categorised?

A categorisation system was developed called the NOVA classification, helping to distinguish between the levels of processing with four different categories.

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

These foods retain their natural state and lack added ingredients. Take whole grains, fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables and eggs as examples.

Processed culinary ingredients

These are crafted from raw ingredients through processes such as pressing and grinding. In this group, you'll find items like oils, butter, sugar, salt, dried herbs, and spices.

Processed foods

These are manufactured by industry by adding salt, sugar, or oil to minimally processed foods, such as cheese or freshly baked bread.

Ultra-processed foods

These foods are entirely altered and typically created using industrial techniques and processes, such as carbonated drinks and savoury packed snacks.

Is ultra-processed food unhealthy?

The term ‘ultra-processed food’ (UPF) is a label intended to categorise foods that have undergone the types of food processing that typically couldn't take place in a home kitchen.

It signifies a caution towards consuming items such as sweets, savoury snacks, fast food, and ready meals that may be detrimental to our health. However, it’s worth noting that even surprising contenders like breakfast cereals, plant-based milks, flavoured yogurts, and certain packaged breads can all fall under the UPF umbrella.

For many, UPFs offer a budget-friendly and convenient option. These foods often dominate supermarket aisles and advertising making it challenging to completely stay clear from them.

Studies have revealed a positive association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Even though these studies are important, their observational design might not establish a direct cause-and-effect link.

Is all processing bad?

Ok, so we have the bad side of processing - ready meals crammed full of preservatives you can’t pronounce.

However, while we often come across the term 'processed food' negatively, we’re actually unknowingly engaging in processing every day, whenever we clean, cut, and cook ingredients.

While there can be drawbacks of processing such as nutrient removal or an excess of fat, sugar and/or salt, it’s important to remember many of the benefits.

  • Enhanced food safety and preservation, such as canning and freezing.
  • Nutrient Retention. Certain processes can enhance the bioavailability of nutrients.
  • Reduced food waste due to longer shelf life.

Where does Huel fit in?

Huel contains multiple ingredients, some of which have gone through certain processes, which is why people may choose to classify them as ‘processed food’. While a large number of UPFs are likely to be unhealthy if consumed too regularly, Huel products are going down a different course.

Some of the benefits of processing Huel is that it creates a convenient product with minimal food waste due to the long shelf-life. Processes when making Huel are also designed to conserve nutrients, like the grinding or soaking of flaxseed, which breaks them down so the body can digest the omega-3 fats inside.

Our focus is on science, and the food processing methods aren’t just steps in a recipe. They enable people to have a nutritious, sustainable and affordable alternative that sets Huel apart from other foods.

To help alleviate any concerns, here are a few food additives that aren't in Huel:

  • No trans fats
  • No monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • No artificial preservatives - e.g. benzoates
  • No artificial colourants - eg azo dyes
ultra-processed foods

    SACN statement on ultra-processed foods

    In July 2023, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition released a statement on processed foods and health. Concerns were raised about the limitations of the NOVA classification system, including the fact that categories are very broad.

    It also emphasised that consumption of UPF may indicate other unhealthy dietary patterns as diets high in UPFs are often energy dense, and high in saturated fat, salt or free sugars. It showed that further research is needed to assess and develop a reliable classification system for UPFs.


    Highly processed foods aren’t inherently bad, processing can actually unlock nutritional value that would otherwise be lost, such as freezing vegetables. The real concern should be HFSS foods (high in fat, salt, sugar) which can have a significantly negative impact on your health. We should all be taking small steps to reduce these foods.

    It would seem reevaluating the NOVA classification is necessary, as being in category four doesn’t automatically make a food choice less favourable.

    Words: Jessica Stansfield RNutr. Junior nutrition manager at Huel.

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