Whether you’re vegan or not, UPFs or Ultra Processed Foods are becoming increasingly recognised across the world … and almost exclusively for the wrong reasons! They have been linked with many health issues and the true extent of the problems being stored up by this type of food is only now becoming apparent. Most of us are blissfully unaware of the UPF in food we consume on a daily basis but there is mounting evidence to suggest a heavy UPF diet increases obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, the risk of cancer, depression, asthma and heart disease,
But what on earth is it? What is Ultra Processed Food?
An Ultra Processed Foods Definition
The emergence of UPF as a classification of food is a relatively recent occurrence. In reality, humans and our predecessors have been processing food for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. Cooking is a process. Grinding grain is a process. Freezing and pasteurising … all processes.
But ultra processed food is a bit different and as a category, generally relates to food products for which it is difficult to identify the fundamental ingredients because they have been altered to such a large extent. These UPFs are profoundly engineered products often created from deconstructed, already highly refined ingredients.
The manufacturers then brew up mixtures of oils, sugar and salt, proteins and flours, combining this with readily available additives like stabilisers, emulsifiers and artificial flavourings to give you the irresistible taste that keeps you coming back for more!
It’s not your fault … UPFs are designed to trigger the addiction centres in your brain!
According to a recent study published in the summer of 2020, ultra processed food now accounts for up to 60% of all energy intake in many high-income countries. Food which is almost entirely devoid of any nutritional value whatsoever!
This means the majority of the food now consumed in (mostly) Western countries does not satisfy our hunger because there are no nutrients in there. So what do we do? We go back for more!
Is it purely a co-incidence that obesity has become so prevalent in Western societies? More concerning is the rest of the world is starting to follow this insane path. China, for example, is rapidly becoming addicted to fast food with their burgeoning middle class. India too … that’s a lot of people!
As promised, here is a relatively concise definition of ultra processed food:
“Pertaining to industrial food preparations, assembled from constituent parts which have been extracted from foods or synthesized from other organic compounds. As a general rule, UPFs are high in salt, sugar and fat, low in protein and fibre and contain no whole food stuffs. Crucial micronutrients and bio-compounds important for human health have been destroyed in the process. They are usually pre-packaged and ready to eat or warm-up.”
Ultra Processed Foods Examples – What’s it Not in?!
You need look no further than the shelves of your preferred supermarket; any one will do!
UPF is in a massive array of products we all consume on a daily basis. From the breakfast toast or cereals in the morning, to the quick grab-a-bag lunch of maybe a sandwich and potato/maize based snack, to the evening meal of pasta with a tomato sauce, finishing up with that ice-cream (vegan of course!) for your pudding.
UPF is almost certainly present in all the examples above!
The convenience and affordability of these ultra processed foods has equated to big profits and bulging pockets for the big food companies and their executives overseeing the pedaling of junk food to the masses.
Here is an ultra processed foods list in order of % of energy intake to give you some examples:
Mass produced packaged breads
Packaged ready meals
Reconstituted meat products
Sweets and chocolates
Biscuits and cakes
Pastries and buns
Reconstituted chips (French fries)
Fizzy drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and juices
Packaged salty snacking foods
Margarine and other spreads (including vegan)
Sauces, gravies and dressings
The first four in the list account for nearly 27% of daily calorie intake … that’s huge!
The examples above show just how difficult it is to avoid ultra processed food in our daily routines. It’s a perfect storm. The stuff is everywhere and our bodies become addicted to it …
We crave that big tube of salt and vinegar Pringles and we’ll eat the entire cylinder of pure joy in one sitting, still hungry because there is next to no nutritional value in there!
So we try to achieve that satisfaction we can’t get by consuming more UPF … the result is an epidemic of obesity ravaging the Western world with developing nations bringing up the rear. I believe this is no coincidence.
Ultra Processed Food and Obesity
The evidence is now overwhelming. Numerous studies are linking the obesity epidemic with the consumption of UPF. A quick search on the PLOS website returns hundreds of results.
As our lives seem to become ever more devoid of meaningful time we look for shortcuts and inevitably, mealtimes have suffered. We’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have time to prepare a home-cooked meal like Mum used to make!
We’re always grabbing something on the run, throwing some frozen concoction into the oven for our evening meal. We’ve lost those skills and we’ve lost sight of one of the most important aspects of life … the food we eat!
Food is our medicine, our nourishment. It is the giver of life; it is our insurance policy!
Our bodies are trying to tell us something. It’s time to listen!
Obesity has become one of the most worrying problems facing modern societies. Over the last 45 years, obesity rates have tripled globally. In 2016, according to the WHO, among the worldwide adult population over 39% were recorded as overweight and 13% were classed as obese.
That’s over 650 million people classified as obese in 2016! It’s not that easy to find data which is bang up to date on obesity but the trends certainly haven’t reversed and countries which used to do quite well in the rankings (ie: low obesity rates) are now sucumming to the same fate.
It’s not only adults either. Childhood and adolescent obesity has increased by 1000% in forty years. Yes, that’s a ten-fold increase! What are we feeding our kids? What health problems are we storing up for the future?
Thankfully, vegans are on the right track because a plant-based diet immediately eliminates many of these ultra processed foods from the daily routine. But we still have to be aware of what we pop in the shopping basket … UPF is a marketers dream when it comes to vegan friendly options!
UPF and a Vegan Diet – The Pitfalls
Before veganism became popular and dare I say it, trendy, the food options in the supermarkets were limited, to say the least! Almost nothing pre-packaged on the shelves was suitable for vegans. Milk products were in almost everything. They even used to put fish oil in biscuits!
These days it seems almost every other product on the shelves is vegan friendly. With growing numbers in our ranks the buying power increases and the marketing people have woken up. Why exclude a large percentage of the market (vegans) when it’s easy to make a vegan friendly version? … which, incidentally, many non-vegans report preferring the taste of!
No-one likes a fishy rich tea 🙂
But hold on. It’s not as rosy as it seems. Meat and dairy ‘replacement’ products often contain UPF and they are almost always high in salt and sugar. It’s a similar story for vegan ready-meals.
It would be wholly inadvisable but perfectly possible to follow a vegan diet which contains no fresh fruit or veg. There is so much processed vegan food available now. But if your diet consists mainly of pre-packaged and ‘replacement’ vegan options then you’re not going to be feeling very well a few months in!
This is one of the primary reasons people give up being vegan. They think they can just stick to their old diet but replace the meat and dairy with vegan ‘versions’. The nutrition is not there and they end up unwell, blaming their poor health on veganism!
UPF is Everywhere – Let’s Kick it Out!
I asked ‘is there UPF in food we all eat’ and the depressing answer is yes, it’s everywhere. It’s almost impossible to avoid, whether you are vegan or not. The big food producers have seen a way to maximise the profits they can extract from the market and ultra processed food is where it’s at!
Not to mention the obscene profits flowing through to the big pharma companies who are cashing in on the major health problems which most experts agree are caused by a combination of the food we eat and our sedentary lifestyles.
Again, the approach is to hit them where it hurts. In the wallet! We, as consumers, have the power to change this sorry state of affairs. Just ensure the majority of your shopping basket is fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you can’t cook, learn how to! There’s one or two vegan recipes online 🙂 Wean yourself off those salty snacks, cut out the biscuits and drink more water.
Minimise ultra processed food in your diet … Your body will thank you for it!
I hope you have enjoyed this article and I welcome your feedback. Please leave your comments below and share with your friends. I do my best to respond to everyone. Have a great day!