There has been a lot of debate in the news recently about processed and ultra-processed foods (UPFs) following the publication of a report scrutinising the consumption of UPFs by infants, toddlers and young children in the UK. I know that lots of you are worried about this and it’s a topic that tends to attract a lot of headlines, a degree of bias and more than a little judgment.
The reality is that the debate around processed foods is not black and white so I wanted to write a post that simply gives you the facts. In truth, fully understanding the effects of processed food consumption on our health is a complicated subject – even for the experts – and a lot of the decision-making around it is currently left in the lap of us parents. Well, we already have a lot on our plate, so hopefully this blog can distil the information, cut through some of the confusion and help you make informed decisions that are right for you and your family.
What are processed and ultra-processed foods?
I have written in the past about both the pros of processed foods and the cons of processed foods and if you’re trying to wrap your head around what we even mean by these terms, then these two blog posts are a good place to start. We all eat processed foods every day in some quantity or other – and many can be nutrient-dense, affordable and convenient. A can of tuna, a tin of sweetcorn, a tub of natural yogurt and a loaf of fortified granary bread, for example, are all processed foods. Together, these ingredients make a mashed tuna and sweetcorn sandwich and a balanced lunch – whether that’s for you or your little one.
On the flipside, there are other highly processed foods, such as crisps or biscuits, that tend to be high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (sometimes abbreviated to HFSS foods). These are examples of processed foods that we wouldn’t want to be regularly eating because HFSS foods have been proven to have adverse effects on our health if regularly consumed in large amounts.
A group of researchers has produced a scale, called the NOVA scale, that helps nutritionists and policy-makers decide to what level a food has been processed. It’s a useful means for consumers to understand the differences, too. The scale splits all foods into one of the four following groups, with group 4 being the UPF category, which tends to include HFSS foods:
Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients
Group 3. Processed foods
Group 4. Ultra-processed foods
Group 1 are simply edible parts of plants and animals or those that are minimally altered by any processes, for example to remove inedible parts or to naturally preserve and store foods. Examples of such processes might be freezing, boiling, drying or packaging foods. A lot of this would happen in a domestic environment.
Group 3 processed foods include fruits and vegetables bottled in syrup or fish tinned in salt, plus cheeses and breads. Ultimately, anything that is a group 1 food that has Group 2 ingredients added to it such salt, sugar and oil.
Lastly, Group 4 are ‘ultra-processed’. These are not simply modified foods but rather foods that have undergone multiple processes which result in little, if any, intact group 1 foods being present. Examples include soft drinks, sweets, packaged snacks, ready meals. Usually, non-culinary or non-domestic ingredients are used to create these, such as additives or ingredients like hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Ultimately, ultra-processed foods are generally considered as foods that involve additional energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt as well as additives. On top of this, the NOVA scale suggests that ultra-processed foods tend to be foods that are a poor source of fibre – something that many of us don’t consume enough of – and micronutrients.
Good Foods, Bad Foods…?
This NOVA scale can be super-helpful for categorising foods into groups and for research purposes, too. However, as with anything in nutrition, food ISN’T black or white, and foods and ingredients don’t all neatly fit into little boxes, categories and types. There are lots of nuances when it comes to the food we
are eat, so the best thing to do is to think about our PATTERNS of eating and what we are eating MOST of the time.
Are processed foods bad for babies and young children?
In an ideal world, of course, most of us, including our children, would be eating much less in the way of UPFs (or group 4 foods) and as much fresh food (or group 1 food) as possible. If you are able to cook from scratch and mostly avoid UPFs, and if you want to do that and enjoy doing that – that’s great.
However, it’s not always the norm or realistic for many of us to be able to feed our kids home-cooked, perfectly fresh, non-processed meals every single night, and it IS ok to include processed foods in our children’s diets. As we’ve seen, some processing can be of benefit; making foods safe, adding nutrients, locking in vitamins etc. Similarly, it is absolutely fine to sometimes offer processed baby food to your little one, albeit ideally as part of a balanced diet of home-cooking. Foods like baby crisps and baby biscuits would largely be seen as UPFs as they will often have added oil, sugars and other ingredients (it’s always worth checking the back of packets). They are OK to offer every now and then but try and keep them to a bit of a minimum and focus on foods which contain plenty of nutrients and some fibre for babies.
When it comes to pouches, these also vary in term of their ingredients so again, be a bit savvy with the labels and choose ones which are based on group 1 foods without added salt, sugars and other group 2 items. Baby food pouches will count as processed foods, but that’s not to say that some pureed fruits and vegetables are “bad” and we shouldn’t give them to baby. Pouches don’t offer all the benefits of home-cooked foods, but they can be a convenient option every now and then. You can read more about manufactured baby food in my blog on food pouches.
What sometimes frustrates me is the ‘guilt’ that often comes with labelling foods so simplistically and the media attention around UPFs and kids, which falls on already overburdened parents’ shoulders. This can lead to a lot of extra shame, extra guilt and extra feelings of judgement around how and what we feed our kids, which isn’t helpful or necessary.
For many of us, using processed foods means that we can provide our children with food, energy and vitamins and minerals much more readily, easily and in a more acceptable form to our kids.
However, there are many foods (largely UPFs), that include ingredients that we DON’T want our kids to be having in large, regular amounts, for a variety of reasons, including salt and sugar. So, opting for less processed foods (especially UPFs), less often is something to aim for. Tapping into processed (and sometimes UPF) foods for ease and to make nutrition easier is also ok, and even a ‘healthy’ option for many of us. Ultimately, it’s about what works for you as a family – it’s going to be different for everyone as we all have different situations and live in different environments and with different standards. Living within your own means to offer your child as balanced a diet as you possibly can is OK.
Our modern lives are increasingly busy and parenting brings considerable additional time and financial pressures: it’s important to be kind to ourselves and do the best that we can with the resources we have available. UPFs are omnipresent and we mustn’t feel bad if our children sometimes eat them. The trick is to understand the scale of processing involved in all the foods we feed our children (using the NOVA scale) and to aim for as much balance, variety and fresh food as we can within our means.
Do processed foods affect children’s behaviour?
More research into child behaviour and diet is needed but nonetheless it is certainly worth focusing on a balanced and varied diet, particularly in cases where your child is experiencing behaviour problems, insomnia, poor concentration or mood swings. If you have concerns about your child’s behaviour and feel you need support, always speak to your GP. Do note that although additives in processed foods can get a bad reputation, any that are used in foods in the UK have passed safety checks and have strict limits on how much can be used.
Affordable alternatives to reduce kids’ intake
If you would like to reduce your child’s intake of UPFs or processed food, you may like to take a look at my 10 best ways to feed your family on a budget which includes suggestions for batch cooking fresh food and budgeting, as well as making full use of your freezer and storecupboard staples. I also have suggestions for homecooked snacks for young children. I hope you find the information in this blog useful and that it helps explain the issues surrounding processed and ultra-processed foods.
Charlotte’s Newest Book!
Following on from her bestselling books How to Wean Your Baby and How to Feed Your Toddler, this book brings Charlotte’s trademark approach of practical support and nurturing step-by-step guidance to help you manage the juggle of family life.