Ultra-processed foods
Experts are warning that ultra-processed foods should be a "wake-up call" to governments after the results of the studies were revealed at the European Society of Cardiology at Amsterdam last weekend. Toby Melville/Reuters

Whenever you go into your local supermarket to browse or do your next weekly shop, it's highly likely that you will come across a wide variety of ultra-processed foods stacked up to the dozens along the shelves.

But what defines "ultra-processed foods" and what exactly does the term mean?

Whilst most foods undergo a process that involves chopping, cooking, baking, straining and canning, ultra-processed foods (UPF) undergo a lot more treatment behind the scenes.

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the term UPF is based on a food classification method known as NOVA, which means that the products are made using industrial processing and will contain various colours, flavours, emulsifiers and preservatives.

Common examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sweets
  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Mass-produced breads (white and brown) and buns
  • Pre-prepared meat
  • Sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Powdered and packaged "instant" noodles
  • Margarine and spreads

How many of these do you commonly buy?

Well, shockingly, research suggests that these UPFs make up approximately, or even more than 50 per cent of the average diet in the UK.

So it's no wonder that, in two recent studies presented at the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam last weekend, the consumption of UPFs can significantly increase the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes.

Experts are now warning that ultra-processed foods should be a "wake-up call" on health to governments after the startling results were presented.

One of these studies was conducted at the University of Sydney and involved the tracking of over 10,000 Australian women for a total of 15 years. The researchers found that those with the highest proportion of UPF in their diet were 39 per cent more likely to develop high blood pressure.

The second study was conducted by researchers at China's Fourth Military Medical University, which involved a wide-ranging analysis of over 325,000 men and women.

Results from the aforementioned study showed that those who ate the most UPF were up to 24 per cent more likely to develop serious heart defects including heart attacks, strokes and angina.

Dr Chris van Tulleken, one of the world's leading UPF experts, stated: "The findings of these new papers are entirely consistent with a large and growing body of work showing that increasing consumption of UPF is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease".

Additionally, former government food advisor, Henry Dimbleby, commented on the findings, saying: "Britain is particularly bad for ultra-processed food."

He continues: "It is storing up problems for the future. If we do nothing, a tidal wave of harm is going to ­hit the NHS."

But how can we avoid these ultra-processed foods and move on to something substantially more healthy?

Well, according to the British Heart Foundation, a simple way of working out if a product has been ultra-processed is to check the label and see if it contains five or more ingredients.

General practitioner, Dr Hilary Jones also urges people to use the "five-or-more ingredient rule" and stay vigilant for the ingredients that are difficult to pronounce, or the ingredients that you wouldn't use in your own home.

"So the healthiest foods are almost completely unprocessed or minimally processed. So fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds," Dr Jones added.

The researchers from both studies are now calling out for the government to act in order for it be to much easier for people to choose the healthier options without second-guessing themselves.

Until then, it is highly advised that people should eat whole foods whenever possible, along with eating freshly prepared, home-cooked meals instead of pre-packaged food.