Ultra-processed food is being unfairly demonised and can be nutritious and keep consumers safe, experts have warned.
A team of researchers and government advisers said messaging that all processed food is bad was not good dietary advice, and advised consumers to focus on the nutritional value of individual products.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yogurts and instant soups.
But experts said it was often the salt, sugar and fat content that was harmful rather than the processing itself, with many home-made versions often being no healthier than shop-bought products.
They argued that it was better for children to eat breakfast cereals, which are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, rather than go hungry. They warned that many poorer families did not have the luxury of being able to worry about buying “artisanal bread”.
Prof Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency, said: “It’s really important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Good for food waste
“Many components are there for safety reasons. Additives that reduce the growth of bacteria or fungi have a really critical role in protecting consumers and extending the life of a product.
“If you can have a loaf of bread that stays fresh for three or four days then that is good for food waste and sustainability.
“We need to be driven by the science base and not have a knee-jerk reaction which treats everything the same.”
Although the team admitted that foods such as biscuits and cakes were overly calorific and nutrient poor, others can be healthy including wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals and yogurts.
Prof Janet Cade, head of the nutritional epidemiology group at the University of Leeds, said that processing often helps preserve nutrients in vegetables like carrots.
“People rely on processed foods for a wide number of reasons,” she said.
“The obvious highly processed foods that we have are baby foods and clearly we are not going to say you shouldn’t be processing those because our babies can’t do the chewing yet.
“The bottom line is if we remove them from our diets this would require a huge change in the food supply which is really unachievable for most people, potentially resulting in further stigmatisation and guilt in those who rely on processed food, promoting further inequalities in disadvantaged groups.”
Ian Young, professor of medicine at Queen’s University Belfast and chairman of the Government’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition, said the link between adverse health outcomes and ultra-processed foods was “unclear due to limitations in the available evidence”.
Most food is processed
Professor Ciaran Forde, chair of sensory science and eating behaviour at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, said: “Nutrition by definition is quite complicated; you can’t easily make rules of thumb for every food.
“Food is only food when it is safe to eat and most food can’t be safe until it is processed.
The panel was speaking at a briefing at the Science Media Centre in London.