There are more dangers lurking in what we eat today than what we might face while crossing a road. While sugar and fried foods used to be the popular villains, the latest food items that threaten our health and well-being are ultra-processed foods. These include most products on the market, from soft drinks to instant noodles to packaged baked goods.
There are plenty of studies that show ultra-processed are linked to serious health conditions, including an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and addiction. Many ultra-processed foods are designed to be highly palatable, often containing additives and flavour enhancers that can trigger overeating and addictive eating behaviours.
“Ultra-processed foods can also affect our mood, cognition, and behaviour, as they can interfere with the balance of hormones in the long run. They can also disrupt our gut microbiome, which plays a key role in our immune system and metabolism,” warns Niyati Naik, clinical dietician at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai.
The widely-used Nova classification system is used to group food items based on the extent to which they are processed. It divides foods into four groups based on their degree of processing: unprocessed or minimally processed foods (such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, eggs, milk), processed culinary ingredients (such as salt, sugar, oil), processed foods (such as cheese, bread, cured meats), and ultra-processed foods (such as soft drinks, chips, cookies, instant noodles).
Ultra-processed foods contain a long list of additives, preservatives, and artificial ingredients, explains Neha Ranglani, a Mumbai-based integrative nutritionist and health coach. These foods are typically ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat items that are convenient, have a long shelf life and are typically high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium.
Some of the most common ultra-processed foods we consume in our daily lives in India are sugary breakfast cereals, packaged snacks (including many so-called health bars), sweetened beverages, fast food, and several ready-to-eat meals. According to a study, Indian ultra-processed foods and beverages have the second highest median total sugar content, says Deepti Khatuja, head and clinical nutritionist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. “Indian packaged foods and beverages also had the highest levels of saturated fat, total sugars, and energy density,” she says.
Ultra-processed foods should be avoided because they lead to nutrition deficiency and obesity, and can cause severe chronic health conditions, digestive problems. They also adversely affect mental health and mood, impact one’s energy levels and also have a negative environmental impact. “Since they tend to be high in calories, unhealthy fats, sugars, and salt, and, at the same time, lack essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, consuming too much of these can lead to malnutrition despite a surfeit of calories,” explains Ranglani.
“These foods are linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, largely due to their impact on weight and metabolic health. Moreover, production and packaging of these foods often contribute to environmental problems like pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions,” she adds.
Recently there has been a rise in the popularity of “healthy” bars and vegan meat substitutes. Both can often be not as healthy as they claim and could easily fall in the ultra-processed food category and hence can cause more harm than good. “Some of the ingredients in these bars, like soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, glucose syrup, artificial sweeteners, and palm oil, are highly processed and often synthetic. The environment and our health may be negatively impacted by these chemicals,” says Naik.
Vegan meat substitutes, such as plant-based burgers, sausages, and other such products, can vary in their level of processing. Some can be highly processed and contain a range of additives and flavour enhancers to mimic the taste and texture of meat, explains Ranglani. “Whether or not these substitutes are considered ultra-processed foods depends on the specific product. Many commercial vegan meat substitutes fall into the category of moderately to highly processed foods due to the use of isolated proteins, oils, and additives,” she warns.
Since we live in a world where a lot of stuff is marketed as healthy, it is important to identify what is good for us and what is ultra-processed food that can harm us. Shashank Mehta, founder-CEO of The Whole Truth Foods, has a three-point framework to check how processed any food item is. “The number of ingredients that you cannot pronounce… the longer that list, the more the chemicals… more the processing (it has undergone). Second, come the shapes and colour. If the food you are eating is a circle, star or square (like kids’ cereals), chances are it is heavily processed. Natural food doesn't look this perfect and doesn’t come in symmetrical shapes. Perfect, bright, shiny colors like pink, blue and red don’t exist in nature the way they exist in packaged food. If you see these, you know the food is processed. Finally, the taste test. If something is far sweeter than you expect it to be, know that it is ultra-processed and has sugar substitutes,” says Mehta.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.