Ultra-processed foods – The Low-down part 2

Friday 20th October 2023

Our resident writer Lizzie Rivera from ethical lifestyle hub Live Frankly is back for part two of her low down on ultra-processed foods. If you missed part one check it out here.

Lizzie Rivera
Our resident writer Lizzie Rivera

Ultra-Processed Foods are hitting the headlines at the moment and there’s no sugar-coating the reports: modern day diets are having an alarming impact on our health.

So, what food can we eat?

“Everyone should have access to healthy, sustainable food and that’s certainly not the case at the moment,” insists the Soil Association’s Cathy Cliff, who is leading on their campaign to urge the government to update their guidelines to address ultra-processed foods.

When it comes to health, the research is clear that there are some things to immediately avoid, where possible. A good starting point is to avoid the sweetener aspartame. Also, avoid emulsifiers (typically listed as ingredients you don’t recognise i.e. mono and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, carrageenan, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80). And avoid BPA plastic packaging.

But what can we eat?

The Soil Association’s report Ultra-Processed Planet recommends the healthiest diets are typically those based around ‘whole foods’ – foods largely as they are found in nature. This means including a lot of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (wild rice, whole oats, bulgur) into our diet as well as meat, eggs and dairy.

This is in-line with recommendations from nutritionist Lucy Williamson.

We asked her for top tips on what such a diet could look like:

  1. Fill your plate with two-thirds plants. This can include fruit, veg, pulses, grains, peas, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Choose ‘nutrient-rich’ foods for the other third – responsibly-sourced fish, meat, dairy or eggs, for example. Good vegetarian options include lentils, peas, beans and other pulses, and protein-rich grains and seeds like quinoa and chia.
  3. Swap sliced mass produced bread for wholesome sourdough (note: supermarket breads are full of additives, and they don’t have to list all of the ingredients they put into the bakery breads that smell so good as you walk into the store).
  4. Watch out for hidden sugar – for example cereal bars, granolas marketed as ‘healthy’ or sauces like ketchup and mayonnaise. Adults should eat no more than 6 teaspoons daily (30g) and children no more than 5 teaspoons (25g).
  5. Check back of pack labelling: do you keep these ingredients in your own kitchen cupboard?
  6. Always choose the most natural option. Opt for whole, plain yoghurt rather than flavoured or whizz up a tomato sauce rather than buying a ready-made alternative.
  7. A word of warning: ‘low fat’ often has other additives to improve the texture; it’s best to opt for the unaltered version.

Williamson maintains the benefits soon start to outweigh any perceived sacrifice:

Lucy Williamson
Nutritionist Lucy Williamson

“The amazing thing is, when you eat in this way you start to feel so much more energised. Everything just starts to work a little bit better; you’re sleeping better, and your emotions are not so up and down – even if you don’t have any particular health conditions. When you notice the health benefits you don’t necessarily want to eat the ‘treat’ foods anymore, you don’t want to go back to that.”

Yeo Valley Organic Products

Yeo Valley Organic milk, and natural yogurts all fall under the minimally processed and natural foods categories. Even our 0% fat range has no added sweeteners or sugar.

Organic milk is a great source of essential nutrients such as calcium, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, phosphorous, iodine and potassium.

All these nutrients, naturally present in milk, make milk a worthwhile part of our diet as they contribute to the normal function of the body in everyday life.

Our butter and cheeses are slightly more processed – as they necessarily have to be – but these still only contain a couple of additional ingredients, such as salt or for Yeo Valley Organic’s Spreadable which also has rapeseed oil, that you will find in your kitchen cupboards. (Remember, cheese is historically just a way of preserving milk).

Our plain kefir is fermented milk, a natural process that creates a product that’s good for your gut health.

If you choose a flavoured yogurt or ice-cream, these are more processed, again. However, they are certified organic, which means the processing and additives allowed are hugely restricted and artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers are forbidden by the Soil Association regulations. Plus, we benchmark these against other flavoured yogurts or ice-creams available to buy and ensure they are the lowest in sugar (if they have any added sugar at all).

Yeo Valley Organic Natural Yogurt
Our Organic Natural Yogurt

This is a similar case for our soups. They contain at least one of your five a day, they are enriched with milk or cheese, and they don’t have preservatives. We benchmark our soups against other brands, ensuring they are among the lowest for salt and fat.

Not all processed foods are bad – you need to be able to read the labels to be able to differentiate between those that are beneficial and those that are harmful to your health.

It is confusing, but we’d reiterate the general advice out there. Choose organic where possible, choose products that have a minimal amount of ingredients – and recognisable ingredients (if an ingredient sounds weird, it is probably not ideal to be in food).

Eat better food and snack on real foods. For example, our soups are a really healthy way to get more vegetables in your diet if you don’t have time to make your own and are a much better option than a processed take away.

For snacking, eating whole foods like an apple or nuts on their own, or with a natural yogurt, are great options.

There’s lots of articles and scientific thought coming out on this subject all of the time. If you want to find out more:

Dr Chris Van-Tulleken switches diet to 80% ultra-processed foods diet for 30 days

Scientists are now uncovering the intricate mechanisms in the effects of ultra processed foods on our brains. Professor Felice Jacka, OAM delves deeper in this Zoe podcast.

Dr Tim Spector’s book Food for Life to better understand the science of eating well.

Comments on “Ultra-processed foods – The Low-down part 2”

  • A really useful and informative article. Thank you. I’m very aware but read it out to my husband who buys a lot “on the go” quick-fix, poor nutritional value items at work. Many thanks.

    Francesca Ballerini on 1st November 2023 at 10:37 am

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