The term ultra-processed foods (UVPs) features increasingly in the British media spotlight. Research has shown that it is precisely this type of product which forms the basis of the British diet and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this country has the highest incidence of obesity in Europe. What are the dangers of foods which have undergone intensive processing? How are they different from fast food? If a diet consisting exclusively of organic food is impossible, can you remain healthy? In what cases is a diet worth considering? To answer these questions and others concerning healthy eating, Kommersant UK has turned to the professionals for help. Two nutritionists with different approaches, Marina Antonova and Olena Jones, have given us the lowdown on what ultra-processed foods are, explained the value of whole foods, discussed whether it’s worth taking vitamins and given tips on how to choose the right food for a well-rounded diet. While Marina and Olena’s views coincide on some points, on others, they disagree.
Half of the typical English diet consists of ultra-processed foods. On the Internet, people cite research claiming these foods induce obesity, cause cardiovascular diseases and even raise the mortality rate. How harmful are these foods really?
Marina Antonova: Ultra-processed foods include foodstuffs made of substances extracted from natural products; snacks, drinks and ready meals. They are very bad for your health because they contain a high proportion of fat, as well as many different emulsifiers, flavourings, food colourings, sweeteners and other flavouring enhancers. As a rule, they have a long shelf-life due to the heavy use of preservatives and most often they are relatively cheap. UPVs are not food, there is nothing left alive in them, so our bodies, (or, more specifically, our stomachs) aren’t able to break them down, digest or absorb them correctly. Therefore, they end up being converted into waste which is laid down as fat, building up in cells, blood vessels and arteries. This can end up causing various diseases of the cardiovascular system and gastrointestinal tract. Even without research, it’s clear that the long-term consumption of these foods isn’t good for anyone as they contain nothing beneficial to your health; no vitamins and no microelements. Eventually, the body will have a breakdown, it’s inevitable. Some people encounter health problems earlier, some later, but everybody has a limit.
Olena Jones: Ultra-processed foods are packaged food-like products. Their attraction is that they require practically no preparation; they are often simply heated. The danger here is that these are industrial products, processed to the highest degree, with none of the things the body requires from natural foods left alive in them; there are no vitamins, minerals or phytonutrients. When highly processed foods become the foundation of the diet, this leads to a shortage of the nutrients the body requires for its normal functioning. The brain sends a hunger signal as the body lacks sufficient healthy nutrients, leading to extra helpings being eaten. As a result, an excess of calories is consumed, but this does not compensate for the lack of nutrients. Besides this, to make these ultra-processed products seem like real food, they add various flavouring enhancers, sweeteners and stabilisers which are harmful to our health. Their addition does not raise the nutritional value, but it does increase the volumes of noxious chemicals. The consequence is elevated risks of obesity, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, a heightened risk of cancer, disruption of the hormonal balance and even a threat to mental health. Our food is essential to us and it’s no idle saying that we are what we eat, minus what comes out, of course.
More and more green foods are appearing on supermarket shelves, such as farm foods and organic products. They are more expensive than ordinary foods. Is it worth paying more for them or is this all just marketing?
OJ: Farm foods and organic products are some of the many kinds of whole foods. For instance, a conveniently grown carrot, an organic carrot and a farm one are all carrots and none of them are ultra-processed foods. A different question is the conditions in which the carrot was grown. But still, all of these types of carrots are natural. Opinions differ on whether organic and farm products are worth the extra money. I believe they are because, at the very least, purchasing them encourages the natural production of food. What’s more, vegetables which haven’t been treated with pesticides and have been grown in more environmentally friendly conditions are stronger; these carrots have had to defend themselves from insects. Since they’re stronger, they make us stronger. These products, of vegetable origin, preserve quite high levels of phytonutrients and it is precisely for their sake that we eat them. So in my personal opinion, eco-foods aren’t just marketing. Buy organic if you can afford to. Organically grown or ‘farm’ vegetables and fruit are a little more expensive than conventionally grown ones, but organic meat and fowl are significantly dearer. When dealing with products of animal origin it’s better to be guided by the principle of ‘quality over quantity’; you can keep costs down by buying less while opting for the best. But you mustn’t forego vegetables and fruit just because you can’t afford to buy organic ones. You can check the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, which are updated every day. In them, you can see which foods are the most polluted; they’re in the ‘Dirty Dozen’; examples are strawberries, spinach and celery. It’s better to buy these organic. Fruits and vegetables with peel that we remove, such as bananas and avocados, often feature on the Clean Fifteen list and it’s less important to buy organic ones. There are also ways of getting rid of pesticides; vegetables can be carefully washed with a brush and lettuce, for instance, can be soaked in water with added vinegar for a quarter of an hour.
MA: It seems to me that the green boom when these foods first appeared on shop shelves has long since passed. Now all supermarkets and online stores include them in their ranges, and they don’t cost much more than food without the ‘eco’ mark. As for their health benefits, well, you don’t need the advice of a nutritionist, logic and common sense are enough; if you want to eat food without chemical contamination, choose organic products. Of course, adverts and marketing affect consumers' views when they’re choosing this or that product, but the issue is quite simple; these foods are either grown with no chemical agents at all or with minimal chemical treatment. These are the facts and we all have to decide for ourselves what to do with them. In my view, the priority when choosing foods ought to be that the way they’ve been processed should not have deprived them of their nutritional value. Ideally, their initial vitamin and microelement content should have been preserved as much as possible.
Which British supermarkets feature more unprocessed, fresh foods on their shelves and which retailers mostly stock ultra-processed foods and are best avoided?
MA: I’m not a typical nutritionist. I don’t go to farmer’s markets and fairs for my shopping. I buy all my groceries in supermarkets such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Whole Foods Market. Nowadays, all stores have unprocessed foods in their ranges, to a greater or lesser extent, this goes not just for Britain, but also the rest of Europe. The only places I wouldn’t go to are corner shops which stock a lot of crisps, various chocolate bars, snacks and other ultra-processed and unhealthy foods.
OJ: In every supermarket, from the pricey Waitrose to the more affordable Lidl, Asda and Tesco, there are both departments for whole foods and ultra-processed foods. Rather than having to choose the right shops, you just have to learn to choose the right sections and shelves inside them. There are also delivery services which specialise exclusively in organic and farm products, such as Abel & Cole and Riverford, however, their products are a lot more expensive. We have a Facebook group where we discuss where and what to buy, and the right way to choose.
What’s the right way to read a label, to tell if a product has no nutritional value?
OJ: The best products have no labels. They are whole vegetables and fruits. The longer the list of ingredients on a label, the greater the likelihood that it is a highly processed product, so try to choose foods with as few ingredients as possible (no more than five). Pay attention to the presence of stabilisers, sweeteners and other flavouring enhancers and also to the order in which the ingredients are listed as they are usually given in declining order of their amount in the product. If sugar, which, as a marketing ploy, is often disguised under another name, such as maltodextrin, is in the first place, it means there is a lot of it in the product so it’s better to put it back on the shelf. But I’m not a fan of scaremongering; we're still going to buy food in packages and cans. For example, canned coconut milk which can be added to curries and other dishes. Of course, it contains stabilisers; there’s no other way. But does this mean that it must be completely eliminated from your diet? Not necessarily! I try to choose coconut milk with the minimum amount of preservatives. When choosing what to eat, I preferred variety. The dangers of a harmful diet are significantly reduced if you don’t eat the same thing every day. If your menu is varied and you try to create a rainbow on your plate, then the likelihood that you’ll overindulge on unhealthy foods is minimal.
MA: The best foods for our bodies are those with no labels at all. If you include more of these in your diet, your body will thank you. But there aren't many simple foods, so when you make your choices in the supermarket, pay attention to the labels: if the ingredients list more than five items (besides the food itself), I’d put the product back on the shelf. If amongst that list of five ingredients, there is one that you don't know, it’s also better not to buy the product. And of course, it’s better to avoid foods with a high content of saturated fats.
Which particularly unhealthy ingredients are used in the production of bread, yoghurts, sauces and pasta?
MA: In bread, it's white flour. Bread isn’t a particularly healthy food, so if you aim to avoid everything unhealthy, then it’s better to completely exclude it from your diet. If you’d like to reduce your gluten intake, replace white bread with sourdough rye, made with a yeast-free starter. In yoghurt, the most unhealthy ingredient is milk of animal origin (most often, cow’s milk). As well as calcium that the body can’t absorb and growth hormones intended for calves, yoghurt contains acids and antibiotics used to treat animals. In fact, all dairy foods are only healthy for children of breast-feeding age (up to roughly the age of three). If you like to add milk to your tea or coffee, use an alternative milk, such as coconut, almond or rye; anything of vegetable origin will always be better for you. Sauces, especially those with long shelf lives, contain many preservatives. They also add various thickeners, colourants and flavouring enhancers to them. Clearly, none of these chemicals do you any good.
Are fast foods and ultra-processed foods the same thing?
OJ: I wouldn’t say so. They overlap because they have much in common. The very word ‘fast food’ has become a synonym for unhealthy food and, in most cases, it really is cheap, high-calorie food low in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. The cooking methods are also not the healthiest. But ‘highly processed foods’ describes the production method, while ‘fast food’ describes how it’s prepared. This doesn’t make it bad per se. For example, in Pret a Manger, you can buy a box of salad, which is real, fresh food, whilst also being fast food.
MA: Fast Food is processed food, which after its preparation by being fried in oil and the addition of mayonnaise, or ketchup etc, becomes ultra-processed food.
If children have got hooked on fast food, how can we teach them to eat right?
MA: Children have to be constantly told what fast food consists of, how harmful it is and what the consequences of its inclusion in the diet may be. They should be given the full, hard facts, even if this seems cruel. This is because we live in a time of overconsumption, when advertising, cafés, restaurants and even society as a whole are promoting fast food. I have never seen advertising for vegetables and fruits, but ready-meals and ultra-processed foods are advertised everywhere, from the mass media to billboards at every step, so being soft and gentle just won’t work if we want to instil a dislike for fast food in a child. Of course, it’s better to teach through your own example, as, if parents enjoy fast food themselves it will be more difficult for them to explain to the child how harmful it is to health: if you eat it, why can’t your child? The most important advice I'd give to parents is to teach children that food is simply for the nourishment of the body. It’s not for the enjoyment of indulgent treats. Don’t encourage children to be emotionally dependent on their food and they will find it much easier to eat right when they grow up.
In the 1990s, much was said about nitrates in vegetables and pesticide residues on the skins of fruit. Does it follow that everything we eat except organic food harms our health?
MA: You can eat everything, as I do. It all depends on the situation, if there are organic foods, buy them, if there aren’t, or they’re too expensive, buy something else. Of course, it’s preferable to choose foods of the highest quality, but in a world where the core element of the human diet consists of processed and ultra-processed products, it’s important to choose foods with at least some nutritional value. Any vegetable or fruit is better for our health than its absence in the diet. We have too much information these days; on the one hand, we worry that the benefits of organic foods have been exaggerated by marketers and on the other, we are concerned that pesticides are bad for us. We have to be more relaxed about food or our bodies will just waste away from lack of nutrients and microelements whilst we’re making our choices.
What bodies control food quality in Britain and decide what foods are organic and which are not?
OJ: Control is effected using criteria set by the EU (these date from when the UK was still an EU member). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the organisation which establishes the criteria defining which products are organic. The soil must meet the standards of the Soil Association, while Organic Farmers and Growers CIC deals with certification. They issue special logos confirming that products are organic and conduct testing to ensure no substitution of goods occurs.
MA: Several bodies oversee the quality of foods; Organic Farmers and Growers CIC, the Organic Food Federation, Soil Association Certification Ltd, the Biodynamic Association, Quality Welsh Food Certification Ltd, OF&G (Scotland), the Irish Organic Association and the Organic Trust. It depends on the farmers’ region. Inspections are conducted at least once a year. Products are tested for quality and certified.
Let’s talk about drinks. Can we drink coffee? In what cases is it better to cut it out completely? Chicory is recommended as a substitute for coffee. How healthy is it? Is green tea as healthy as it is said to be, or are things more complicated? What is the value of black tea in the diet?
OJ: Everything is individual, there are no universal rules. As we are discussing highly processed products, I'd like to mention drinks which are not coffee; these include all types of instant coffee and those in capsules. These drinks only resemble natural coffee in their colour. Real coffee must be bought as whole beans. It should not be over-roasted or treated with chemicals and it should preferably be organic. Coffee beans are susceptible to attack by mould, although this occurs due to mechanical damage of the beans during cultivation, processing or storage, rather than any natural tendency for coffee to become mouldy. The aflatoxins mould contains are dangerous to human health. So if you like coffee, choose beans of the best quality you can afford. As coffee raises the blood pressure and contracts the blood vessels I wouldn’t recommend it to people who have had heart attacks. But if someone comes to me on the verge of depression, then I’d advise them to drink a cup of aromatic coffee in the mornings. That might perk them up enough to make the prescription of antidepressants unnecessary. Coffee is a very ambiguous drink; for some it is medicine and for others a poison. Actually, the same is true for many products, including green tea. There are certain genetic predispositions which make excessive consumption of green tea unadvisable, whilst others find it indispensable due to its high content of polyphenols. As coffee and green tea hinder the body’s absorption of iron, people inclined to anaemia should either limit their intake of these drinks or at least avoid them for an hour or two after eating steaks and other iron-rich foods. This gives the body time for digestion. Chicory is a healthy drink containing inulin (a cellulose which helps to reduce levels of cholesterol and glucose in the blood) and its bitterness stimulates the work of the liver and the flow of bile. If someone has to stop drinking coffee for medical reasons, however, I prefer to recommend dandelion root as a substitute, as I think it’s closer to coffee in colour and taste. Black tea is an ordinary, pleasant-tasting drink which is less healthy than its green counterpart, and less energising (green tea contains a lot of caffeine). Its lower caffeine content means black tea can be drunk in the evening. It also slows the absorption of iron a little.
MA: I’m not going to talk about the harm of coffee (it contains caffeine and raises acidity), as a lot of research has been published on the Internet about both its benefits and detriment to health, and doubtful coffee addicts will always find justifications for their habit. I used to drink coffee myself in unlimited quantities and now I can’t believe that I allowed that unpleasant, bitter-tasting liquid to touch my beloved internal organs. If you try the same taste several times, you get used to it. Try drinking chicory for a while; it also has a bitter taste, but this plant is harmless to your health. Maybe you’ll get used to it and it’ll replace coffee for you.
On visiting a dietician, tests are usually prescribed to check levels of vitamins and microelements. If the levels of certain vitamins turn out to be low, they are prescribed in artificial form. Expert opinions on the taking of vitamin tablets and dietary supplements are polarised. Are they worth taking in your view?
OJ: They are worth taking for people who have a deficiency. For instance, some people are either allergic to fish, or they don’t eat it for some reason; maybe they just don’t like it. They end up not getting enough healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are irreplaceable in the diet and essential for life; without them, the functioning of the heart is disrupted, the hair falls out, infections are aggravated etc. We can’t function normally without omega-3 because, historically it transpired that we had a lot of food of marine origin in our diets. What’s more, genetic analysis can show if someone has difficulty absorbing this fatty acid; for some people, digesting it happens slowly. In these cases, to overcome this genetic disinclination, we recommend dietary supplements. These should be individualised, taking into account the patient’s diet, any symptoms and any genetic factors. This should not necessarily be done on the basis of tests as, statistically, this can only give 4% of the whole picture of the person’s health. 16% can be gained from an external examination and the remaining 80% is from the patient’s history and what they say about themselves; how they live and what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If someone really doesn't know anything about their own body, has never done any tests and has never had any consultations with specialists, but, nevertheless, they feel that their diet is insufficiently varied, they could take multivitamins from one of the tried and tested brands. These can complement the diet harmoniously and they can be safely recommended to more or less anyone. But I wouldn’t expect any miracles. As a nutritional therapist, I prescribe supplements to compensate for dietary deficiencies.
MA: I don’t take them and there are several reasons for this. First of all, if someone has a balanced diet with a lot of vegetables, fruit and natural foods, their nutrition should be within an acceptable range. Secondly, I think that any vitamin from a tablet is incomparable to those contained in foods. Our intestines were created by evolution to absorb vitamins from food and not to be burdened with artificially created supplements in the form of powders and pills that they can’t digest. Thirdly, I don’t see eye-to-eye with the approach, often practised in medicine, of identifying a problem and then treating one organ in isolation by prescribing a pill, as if that will resolve everything. It won’t, there are no magic bullets and it will only mask the symptoms momentarily, as artificial supplements may raise vitamin levels for a month or two but they don’t work long-term. So, if you’d like to improve your health for long years rather than just for a few months, start to eat vitamins in their original form; in vegetables and fruit. That actually works.
How effective are diets and food limitations in the treatment of different diseases?
MA: Of course, dietary limitations can be very effective for your body because it’s tired of digesting the junk food you feed it with. Your sense of well-being will improve at once. But humans are the only creatures possessing fancy brains that accept no limits. So diets bring no benefit, only a temporary hatred of life and healthy eating. I’m personally suspicious of any diet, as they cause disproportionate harm to physical and mental health. For instance, I always inform my clients which foods cause diseases and we gradually remove them from their food intake from day one. We add as many foods as possible that either help prevent diseases or neutralise any ailments that are already present. Your brain and your gut will only work in your favour if they are happy; the gut is happy if it receives a lot of healthy food and the brain if it is not deprived of familiar foods.
OJ: By no means would I like to depreciate the value of the work of a doctor. Of course, in cases of acute disease, pharmaceutical remedies are necessary and sometimes operations are required, but, critically, the main focus for the treatment of chronic ailments should initially be through adjustments to diet. I don’t like the word ‘limitations’ and in my work, I first look at what is lacking and needs to be added to correct a deficiency. What isn’t needed will go of its own accord.