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BNF survey reveals confusion about ultra-processed foods

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is increasingly used in research on diet and health, with headlines suggesting consuming these foods leads to increased risk of disease. Yet, a new survey from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) suggests that people find it difficult to distinguish between foods classed as ultra-processed and other processed foods.

The survey, undertaken by YouGov on behalf of BNF, reveals that 70% of British adults had not heard of the term ultra-processed food before taking the survey, but 36% state they are trying to cut back on processed foods.

The new BNF research aims to analyse people’s understanding of processed and ultra-processed foods and the role they play in the diet. The term ultra-processed foods is usually based on a food classification method called NOVA, which defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives.

More than one fifth of the survey respondents (21%) say that a healthy, balanced diet shouldn’t include any ultra-processed foods, however the survey reveals a lack of understanding of which foods are included in the ultra-processed definition. When given a list of foods and asked which they would classify as ultra-processed, just 8% selected canned baked beans, 9% low fat fruit yogurt, 12% ice cream, 19% pre-packaged sliced bread from a supermarket, 26% ready-made pasta sauces, and 28% breakfast cereals with added sugar, despite all the above being classed according to NOVA as ultra-processed.

Sixty-nine per cent of those surveyed say they agree with the statement that it’s better to cook from scratch than use processed foods but 53% agree that a healthy, balanced diet can include some processed foods and 49% say that processed foods can be convenient and help save time. Twenty-six per cent agree with the statement that it is not possible to cook all their meals from scratch.

Sara Stanner, Science Director, British Nutrition Foundation, said: “There can be a very judgmental attitude towards processed foods, implying that you cannot be eating well if your diet is not made up entirely from ‘real food’ that is cooked from scratch. But most foods we eat are processed in some way and processed foods help a lot of us to prepare meals within the limited time and budget we have. And just because something is homemade does not necessarily make it a healthy option – recipes vary widely from the very healthy to the very indulgent. What we should really be concerned about is how healthy a food is overall, and the balance of our diet as a whole.”

The survey reveals that 43% of men and 51% of women agree that checking the nutrition label on processed foods can help them make healthier choices.

Stanner adds: “Some ultra-processed foods, such as confectionary, fried snacks, cakes and sugary drinks, are already recognised by nutrition professionals as foods to limit, however this does not mean that all processed foods should be demonised. Looking at food labels, in particular at sugar, salt and saturated fat content, can be valuable in helping us to make healthier choices. In addition, we need to encourage food manufacturers to produce foods that are healthier, ensuring that healthier food choices are easier, more convenient and affordable for people to make.”

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