Ultra-Processed Foods – The SACN update

What are ultra-processed foods?

“Processed food” is a term that is thrown around a lot in everyday life – in the media, by the government, by friends and family – pretty much anyone you speak with will have a perception of processed foods. But this perception is not always correct.

Technically speaking, the majority of what we eat is processed. Most food undergoes some form of processing for it to be consumable by us.

For example, removing a pistachio shell is a ‘process’ the pistachio undergoes so that we can eat the nut inside.

The difficulty lies in the meaning – what is normally meant by ‘processed’ is ‘ultra-processed’, which has a different meaning and different connotations. There are different levels to how processed a food is, as classified by NOVA (a name, not an acronym). 

How are they classified and defined?

NOVA classifies food into four primary categories;

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
  3. Processed
  4. Ultra-processed foods
  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed

This includes products such as fruit, vegetables, animal products (meat, fish, milk, eggs), nuts, and seeds. These have no added ingredients and have undergone very little alteration from the state they are procured in. 

  1. Processed culinary ingredients

As the name implies, this group includes ingredients that are added to other foods, rather than consumed by themselves – for example, things like sugar, oil, or salt. 

  1. Processed

This is where the confusion can sometimes lie.

‘Processed’ foods are typically those that are made from ingredients found in group one and group two, ‘processed’ easily within their own kitchens. For example, making jam or homemade bread, or pickling items to preserve them. 

  1. Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods, also known as UPFs, are what people typically mean when they refer to ‘processed’ foods, but are also commonly referred to as junk food. 

UFPs tend to contain five or more ingredients, some of which are typically used for preservation or to extend the shelf life of the product, for example, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilisers, artificial colours or flavourings, sweeteners, and so on. These are typically the ingredients that seem a bit more foreign to us.

How do UPFs impact our health? 

In the UK, it is estimated that over 50% of the calories that we as a nation consume come from ultra-processed foods.

Previously conducted longitudinal studies in French and Spanish populations, with a combined total of 64’000 participants, have found that high consumption of UPFs is linked to an increased risk of death, with another longitudinal French study of over 100’000 participants indicating that consuming a higher rate of UPFs was also linked to a greater risk of heart disease. 

While correlation does not equal causation, heart disease can of course be fatal. 

A further study was conducted on the same participants, that linked a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption with a 12% increased risk of cancer. 

However, previously, studies that have looked into the impact of ultra-processed foods have grouped the foods researched differently, due to the ambiguity with the NOVA classification system – for example, with sliced bread or baked beans – some product versions are far more ‘processed’ than others (e.g. added salt/sugar, wholegrain vs. white bread), but these differences are apparently negligible, and all versions are ultra-processed by NOVA. 

What were the key findings from the SACN update?

The new SACN report highlights consistent findings of associations between consuming UPFs and poor health, however, it additionally stated that there are limitations with what is meant by ultra-processed food. 

The primary issue highlighted by the report notes that the NOVA classification system currently used raises concerns with its applicability in the UK – the experts conducting the report called for a new classification system that could be used to determine whether foods in the UK are actually ultra-processed or not. 

The difficulties lie more within foods that toe the line between groups 3 and 4 – processed and ultra-processed – as mentioned, previous studies have categorised these foods differently, ultimately meaning that ‘evidence’ that has been previously used to determine guidelines when it comes to nutrition and diet may now be obsolete, and far more standardised research is now required. 

The report also acknowledges that, in the research assessed, those that tend to regularly consume ultra-processed foods are also generally considered to have a less healthy diet overall, and that rather than the “processed” element of the food being the cause, it may rather be the nutritional quality of their diet entirely. A diet made up of predominantly ‘ultra-processed’ food is one that would largely be lacking fruits and vegetables – but is it what they are eating that is causing the associated health problems, or is what they’re not eating? 

Additionally, previous research has not necessarily accounted for other lifestyle factors that may contribute to poor overall health, such as exercise habits, smoking, and alcohol intake. So, rather than ultra-processed foods being the sole root and cause of poor health, they may instead be a mere indicator of an ‘overall unhealthy lifestyle’.

The update has highlighted that we perhaps do not know as much about processed foods as we think, and although it’s undoubtable that a diet high in whole foods is the most beneficial for our health (i.e. lean proteins, plenty of fruit and veg, complex carbs, and plant-sourced fats), it may be that ultra-processed foods are not quite as bad as inherently awful as we have been lead to believe so far.

Further research is certainly required, but so long as your diet is comprised primarily of whole foods, ultra-processed foods as we know them currently are not a priority, and you are aware of other lifestyle factors that can impact your overall health, there is no need to be concerned! 

Of course, if you are concerned that your nutrition is not up to scratch, you can place an order for a trial week with Fresh Fitness Food, using the code BLOG60 for £60 off your first week, and book a call with one of our in-house Nutritionists! 


Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González M A, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonça R d D, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C et al. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study BMJ 2019; 365 :l1949 doi:10.1136/bmj.l1949

Srour B, Fezeu L K, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Méjean C, Andrianasolo R M et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé) BMJ 2019; 365 :l1451 doi:10.1136/bmj.l1451

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Meghan Foulsham

Published by Meghan Foulsham

Meghan's fascination with metabolism and the effect of diet on the body covered in her BSc Biochemistry, paired with being a passionate mental health advocate, led her to a Master's degree in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Using this, Meghan works with clients to help them reach their goals in the most sustainable way, without sacrificing or risking their mental health.

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