Recently, there have been a few stories in the news about ‘Ultra-Processed Food’ and its supposed consequences on our health. With more than half of all foods bought by UK families falling into this category, it’s no wonder that the big companies that are producing them are doing so well. But what does Ultra-Processed actually mean, and what does it mean for our diets – and the food choices we’ll be making in the future?
Effectively, ‘Ultra-Processed’ means food that is ‘manufactured by opaque, high tech methods using industrial additives and food derived component parts’ (thank you to the Guardian for the definition). Basically, these foods are about as far from a natural and healthy diet as it’s possible to get, and very few of the component parts would be actually recognisable as foods themselves.
I saw a Michael Pollan quote recently online, and it just about sums this up to me: ‘don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’. He has a point. With all the chemicals artificially added to Ultra-Processed food products, how much of it is actually food? And just what is it doing to my body? With this worrying thought in my head, I tried to think of all the foods in our house which might fall into this category, desperately hoping that we’re well below average on our Ultra-Processed foods consumption.
After arguing with myself over whether a stock cube counts as Ultra-Processed, (and whether it is better or worse than a stock pot..?) and whether or not dried pasta is ultra or only partially processed, I settled on a list of our most used processed products (not necessarily the worst for being Ultra-Processed). Thankfully, I was content in the knowledge that there are no ready meals, crisps or biscuits in our kitchen, but I was horrified to realise that even down to sliced bread, more foods are Ultra-Processed than you might think!
The not-good, the bad, and the ugly in our kitchen:
- Coca Cola cans. Yep I know they probably contain most of our kitchen’s refined sugar content, but, I like it. It’s refreshing, and okay as an occasional treat…right?
- Chris’ Weetabix. I’m specifying it’s his not to shift guilt, but because I’m pretty certain it’s made of cardboard, and will absolutely not eat it. Ever.
- Stock cubes. Okay, I’m not sure that these are Ultra-Processed, but they must at least be part processed, and they are very salty. But so useful!
- A plethora of condiments, the most used being ketchup. This one goes hand in hand with the potato waffles (next point).
- Potato waffles. Yep I know. I love eating these for breakfast like the child I am. Unfortunately these are horrifically over-processed, and I need to stop eating them if I want to look good at my wedding. Ugh.
- And lastly, Quorn. This is the most recent addition to our kitchen, and an easy substitute for meat in my bid to be more animal friendly.
There are almost certainly more, especially if you get picky over the dried pasta and microwave rice. But these, I think, are the ones that we use the most. On balance, I’m not convinced that stock cubes, ketchup and Weetabix are my biggest worry, but I do need to cut down on the coke and the waffles. Then there is the Quorn. While it is super easy to cook, tastes good and doesn’t involve dodgy mass animal farming methods, it might actually not be the best thing to be adding to my diet.
I read this article on the Guardian this week, and it not only inspired this post, but also got me thinking about the consequences of trying to do better by blindly following the mainstream rather than doing my own research. Don’t get me wrong, taking advice when you’re not sure is a great thing – and extremely helpful when looking for new ideas and inspiration! I certainly take advice – and actively seek it out too! But, lesson learnt, always read the packet first. For example, I assumed (wrongly, as it turns out) that potato waffles were made of, well potato. And a bit of oil to stick them together and crisp the edges? I was surprised to find what can only be described as a small essay under ingredients. Can they really be called potato waffles with so many ingredients? It’s a little misleading perhaps…
My main problem with Quorn is similar, but more pronounced: what on Earth is in it? It looks vaguely meaty, but doesn’t contain any meat, but it doesn’t look much like a vegetable either. Well it’s Mycoprotein, of course. Yep, and that is…? As it turns out, processed mould with a few added extras, that then has to be heated to remove all the excess acid. Appetising. But at least it’s not from a suffering animal right? Small victories. I’m not saying I’m going to stop eating Quorn, because I definitely won’t, but I do now know what I am actually eating, and it will definitely be less often. At the end of the day, I am still eating meat, and at least I can be more discerning about where that came from.
The point is, until someone actually looked at this aspect of the nation’s diet, and handed over their findings in a neatly packaged (if disturbing) statistic, I hadn’t even considered the processes behind the foods I was eating – as long as it wasn’t laden with fat, salt or sugar, it was fine. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the next food movement isn’t about whether you eat animals or not, whether you eat raw food, or whether or not you juice, but whether you know what you’re actually eating. Maybe it’s about empowering people to understand the production and ingredients behind the foods they are eating, from cardboard-esque breakfast cereals, to potato waffles, to meat substitutes. It seems like we’re becoming so wrapped up in how our food affects the environment, that we’ve forgotten to think about how food affect us when we eat it.
What do you think about Ultra-Processed foods? Do you agree that we should be able to better know what things are made of to make better choices? Or would you rather eat your Quorn and waffles in blissful ignorance? (In which case, sorry!) I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
For more information, try these articles from the Guardian: