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UPFs – Ultra Processed Foods & Emulsifiers – What You Need to Know

Can you guess how many ingredients this vegan burger has? Would you be surprised that its over 30? Would you know that one of those is wood pulp?

According to new research, some ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can deliver the same affect as drugs such as nicotine and alcohol, with experts recommending that many UPF products be labelled ‘’addictive’’. A new global analysis of 281 studies from 36 countries, published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), found that some people who consume UPFs could ‘’meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder’’. It also found that an estimated one in 7 adults and one in 8 children have  ‘’UPF’’ addiction, causing behaviours such as withdrawal symptoms, intense cravings and continued consumption despite obesity, binge-eating and other health problems. Dr Chris van Tullken, author of the best selling book Ultra Processed People:The Science Behind Food that isn’t Food, UPF is a term we are now more familiar with. Yet what constitutes a UPF can be confusing. Some processed foods are beneficial and are unfairly demonised but knowing which to choose when food shopping, can be difficult when the labels suggest it’s a good choice if it contains fibre or is sugar free, good for gut health etc. The key to making an informed decision requires us to look at the list of ingredients – often in such tiny print that we don’t often bother if we are making a supermarket dash or lured by the packaging. Scientists suggested that often it was the added salt, sugar and fat content that was harmful, rather than the processing itself .For example bread and breakfast cereals, often fortified with vitamins and minerals, can play a part in a healthy diet. ‘’It’s high-fat, high-salt and high sugar combined into industrial products with exotic additives, which can’t really be described as food’’, explains Dr Van Tullken. ‘’They’re ultra-processed foods, a set of substances that are addictive for many and are now linked with weight gain, early death and depression.

So What Exactly is UPF?

Almost all food is processed to an extent making it digestible and tasty, or to delay spoiling. Think flour (made from ground and sifted grains), tinned tomatoes (sealed in a can using heat) and pasta (produced by mixing flour, water and sometimes eggs). UPFs are different. Food can be divided into four groups, according to how extensively they have been processed from group 1 (minimally processed with no added salt, sugar, oils, fats or other additives) to group 4 (ultra processed foods formulated in factories, often using multiple processes). Ready meals, pizzas, cold meats, many breakfast cereals, flavoured yogurts, cakes and pastries, crisps, soda drinks like Coke etc. Vegetarian and vegan burgers and sausages are UPF. Frankfurter or Frankenfood? UPFs now account for 60% of the UK diet. Additives are a red flag too. A good guide is if there is an ingredient on the list that you wouldn’t find in a kitchen cupboard, its very probably a UPF. Anything with a healthy claim on the packaging is probably UPF according to Dr vanTullken. ‘’It’s just marketing’’. For example, wording about fibre, vitamins/minerals suggests the food has been stripped of nutrients while processing and the manufacturer has added some back in order to be allowed to promote it as healthy. It’s worth noting than some unfamiliar ingredients don’t necessarily signify UPF. Certain flours in the UK are fortified with calcium, iron, thiamine and niacin, and don’t count as UPF. Corn starch known as corn flour isn’t UPF either but, ‘’modified’’ corn starch is.

How to Spot UPFs

Distinguishing an apple from a chocolate bar is easy but the difference between processed and ultra-processed is not always so clear. Here’s a list of ingredients to look out for that indicate a product is probably UPF. Check for: Sugars (fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, date sugar, ‘’fruit juice concentrate’’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose,); Modified oils ( hydrogenated or interesterified oils); and protein sources (hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, and ‘‘mechanically separated meat’’). UPF Additives are usually found at the bottom of the ingredient list. They include flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents.


Emulsifying is the term used when two substances repel each other but can be amalgamated. We can make a salad dressing vinaigrette by whisking oil and vinegar together or a homemade mayonnaise using eggs and oil. When left for a time the components will separate again. Emulsifiers are used extensively in processed foods but don’t separate because of another ingredient is used to stable it. This gives a product shelf life and adds to the texture in our foods, for example, ice cream or a vegetable spread, commercial mayonnaise. This smooth and creamy texture also becomes one of the factors that lead to our ‘addiction’ to many processed foods and disables us from being able to stop eating when already full, leading to weight gain and obesity.

Some Common Emulsifiers

Lecithin (E322) Naturally present in egg yolk and vegetable oils, the emulsifier used in food processing is often extracted from soybean or sunflower oil. Mono-and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471) Made from glycerol and natural fats, which can be from animal or vegetable sources. Esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids (E472a-f) Made from natural fats, glycerol and organic acid such as citric or tartaric acid. The fats are often vegetable fats but may be animal fats. Emulsifiers often appear as E numbers and can be difficult to spot. Here are some others to watch out for: E407, E466, E477, E491, E433, E476, E481, E492. Others include: E472 & E339 (trisodium phosphate), mainly found in breakfast cereals. E407, E452 & E422 are found mainly in low fat dairy. Supermarket bread and snacks like Pringles might have E471 & E472e. Sauces often contain E477 and vegan burgers have E461. In 2015, researchers in Atlanta published a study in Nature supporting their theory that emulsifiers used in food processing could be promoting inflammatory diseases. Specifically carboxymethylcellulose (E466) and polysorbate – 80 (E433 ) They tested on mice and found it changed the make up of microbiota in the guts of the mice. This change meant bacteria could now enter and damage the intestinal barrier, a dense mucus layer lining the intestines that is normally able to stop bacteria entering the bloodstream.  The changed microbiota also meant production of more inflammatory molecules. So this resulted in encouraging inflammation to the immune system. Since then there has been a keen interest in how emulsifiers are affecting people. We are seeing a greater proportion of the population suffering from Inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome and colorectal cancer together with other health conditions. Foods that commonly contain emulsifiers
  • Margerine and reduced fat spreads
  • Mayonnaise
  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream and other frozen dessert blends
  • Bread
  • Baked products
  • Creamy sauces
  • Processed meats
  Look out for these thickening and gelling agents; Carrageenan , Gelatine, Pectin, Potato Starch, Tapioca Starch, Arrowroot and Agar-Agar. Modified thickeners include Modified Starch, Modified Cellulose, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Locust Bean Gum, Gum Arabic and Xanthan Gum. If you knew Modified Cellulose was made from wood pulp or bamboo pulp, ask yourself if that would be in your kitchen store cupboard. Without knowing the origin of some emulsifiers, additives and gelling agents someone who was strictly vegan or had a sensitivity to soya, potato starch, eggs or seaweed, for example, can easily eat a processed food that would affect them. If there is doubt about a processed product its best to contact the manufacturer for clarity.

Obesity, Heart Disease, Dementia, Leaky Gut, Digestive Issues

Numerous studies have linked UPFs with a range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Most recently, studies from Australia and China suggested that UPF consumption can significantly raise the risk of high blood pressure – linked to dementia – as well as heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. The Chinese research linked high UPF with a 24% higher chance of problems like angina, heart attack and stroke. There is evidence linking UPF foods to obesity. It’s thought the soft, creamy texture and intense flavour of many UPFs make them ‘’hyper palatable’’. This confuses the signals between the gut and the brain; we can’t tell when we are full, so we eat more. Then we become addicted to the taste and mouth feel. Our growing addiction to these foods is a major global health crisis waiting to unfold.

Do UPFs Cause Cancer

Earlier this year, a large study by Imperial College London linked higher consumption of UPF to increased risk of cancer, specifically ovarian and brain cancers. It’s not just the high levels of sugar, fat and salt found in UPFs that are the problem, or the additives on their own. ‘’The individual ingredients of UPF may be harmful, but it is in combination that they do the most harm,’’ Dr van Tullken says.

The Foods to Avoid

Some nutritionists suggest that if you do buy UPF, check the label and choose one in low fat, sugar and salt. Try to add lots of good stuff on your plate like leafy greens. If you have a sugary breakfast cereal try to have minimally processed food during the rest of the day. People make a choice but if 60% of what you eat is UPF then the evidence suggests these products are troubling and are not made with your health in mind. Of course, preparing your food from scratch isn’t always possible but try to be aware of what you are buying and eating and make heathier, informed choices. Make time to batch cook and get to know those labels you can trust so you can get familiar with brands who do have your health in mind, and not be taking advantage of current buzz word trends to give themselves the aura of being a nutritionally sound choice. This is marketing for profit and not for your benefit. Trying to eat about 30 unprocessed, different plant-based foods each week will give you the optimum opportunity to maintain your health, whether fresh, tinned or frozen at source. Try to limit dependence on processed food because research would suggest it’s the amount of processed food we consume that has a cumulative inflammatory effect not the occasional ready meal.