You might never buy a Pot Noodle but your protein powders and salad dressings could well be UPFs. Nutritionist Rob Hobson has these tips to ditch the dross from your diet
Did you know what the acronym UPF meant a couple of years ago? Most of us didn’t. But there’s been such a huge debate round ultra-processed foods recently that it has quickly entered common parlance. Dr Chris van Tulleken’s book Ultra-Processed People (Cornerstone Press, £11) was a Sunday Times bestseller last year, laying bare the extent of just how much of the food we eat is stuffed with unnatural ingredients that damage our health. UPFs tend to be high in sugar, saturated fat and salt, too much of which is of course linked with type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. It gets worse though: they're also designed to be extremely palatable to the point of addictive - and are crammed with additives to achive this - so we tend to gorge on them, and then feel horrible afterwards.
UPFs are also a bugbear of Zoe founder Professor Tim Spector, who frequently reiterates that we should avoid foodstuffs that have items on the ingredients label that you haven’t heard of and/or wouldn’t find in your kitchen cupboard.
Now top sports nutritionist and Get The Gloss Wellness Awards judge Rob Hobson has written a brilliant book, Unprocess Your Life (Thorsons, £18.99), crammed with advice and recipes to help us make better food choices. He'll have you whipping up UPF-free versions of a pot noodle and chicken Kyivs in no time.
But first things first – what exactly is a UPF? “They typically contain five or more ingredients not used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colours and flavours,” says Rob. They are often convenience foods like ready meals but, worryingly, they aren't always entirely obvious - seemingly 'healthy' choice such as protein powder and shop-bought salad dressings, for example, also count as UPFs . They're everywhere, basically!
"The term ‘ultra-processed’ was coined by researchers to help distinguish between less processed and minimally processed foods.” adds Rob. (The latter includes things like olive oil or fermented foods – the point is that a certain amount of processing isn’t necessarily bad.)
Rob is a pragmatist – he knows that it’s almost impossible to give up every single UPF (you will have to prise that Sriracha mayo bottle out of my cold dead hand, I'm afraid), so instead he focuses on making small, manageable tweaks to our diets. Here are answers to the questions he’s most commonly asked about how to start eliminating UPFs. Over to you, Rob.
Where do I start with eliminating UPFs?
"1. Take a good look at what you eat and what is in your kitchen cupboards so you can gauge your intake of UPFs. From here you can start to plan your strategy and remember lots of small changes is better than trying to do everything at once.
"2. Find your weakest point during the day when you rely on a UPF. This may be your work lunch, when you feed the kids or when you come in from work and can’t face cooking. I would try to work on changing this part of the day first.
"3. Look at some of the UPF-heavy meals you eat on regularly and make your own homemade versions. Start with a couple of recipes and try batch cooking them. This might be a homemade pot noodle, fishcakes, chicken Kyiv or curry, instead of a ready prepared version or take away. Once it becomes second nature to make these yourself, they can become part of your go-to selection that you can whip up off by heart in a jiffy. From here you can start exploring more dishes."
I need to get better at reading food labels to avoid UPFs - top tips?
"It's crucial to scrutinise the list of ingredients to make healthier choices. It's common to find UPFs marketed as health foods. Be cautious of these. When choosing, opt for the most natural option available. In cases where you must decide between two UPFs, pick the one with fewer ingredients, especially those ingredients that are unfamiliar or not typically found in a home kitchen."
I love bread but it seems to be a minefield here. How can I still eat it on a UPF-free diet?
"Yes, bread often sparks debate. It is considered a nutrient-rich UPF, offering benefits such as fibre, iron, calcium, and B vitamins – traits not common in many other UPFs. Its classification as a UPF is due to ingredients like emulsifiers and preservatives that extend its shelf life. The processing alters the food's structure, making it softer and quicker to consume, which may lead to eating more without feeling full.
"Consider making your own bread or opting for fresh sourdough, preferably wholemeal. If these aren't feasible options, then select the best available bread by carefully reading ingredient labels. Another idea is to try making simpler bread items like pitta bread or wraps, which are quick and easy to prepare."
Gym bunny here. Are protein powders UPFs? If yes, what can I have instead?
"Afraid so - many protein powders contain emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners. Select an unflavoured option and enhance it yourself with additions like cocoa powder or fresh fruits. There are plain protein powders available that are just the whey or plant protein and nothing else, so these are not UPF.
"Or create your own drink using milk or yogurt blended with berries, nuts and seeds. For those who avoid dairy, finding adequate protein in plant-based milks can be challenging. Soy milk is a notable exception, as it contains high protein levels and all the essential amino acids necessary for muscle protein synthesis post-workout. However, be aware that these milks are also UPFs due to the inclusion of emulsifiers and gums for stabilisation. One of the few brands that produce non-UPF nut milks are Plenish."
Is it realistic to 100% avoid UPFs? (Do you?)
"No, it’s not realistic to completely eliminate them from our diet, and I haven't done so myself. When making healthier dietary choices and altering eating habits, it's important that these changes are sustainable for a lifetime, rather than becoming a burdensome task or a fleeting trend. A more effective approach is to implement several small, manageable changes – eg baking your own bread and preparing batches of fresh meals each week. This constitutes a significant achievement."
Will my grocery bill go up if I go UPF-free?
"While UPFs are often more affordable and convenient, it is possible to find additive-free convenience foods, though they might cost a bit more. But I recommend cooking more from scratch, which involves planning and looking for the best deals on quality ingredients. Beans, pulses, and lentils are affordable. And opt for frozen vegetables, which are just as nutritious as fresh ones but often cheaper. Additionally, cooking meals in bulk can lead to significant savings on your food costs."
Any tips for avoiding UPFs when eating out?
"Higher-end restaurants are more likely to offer UPF-free options since they often prepare meals, including sauces and marinades, from scratch. Choose simpler dishes like salads, grilled meats, fish, or their vegan equivalents, and ensure the dressings are homemade or request olive oil with lemon or vinegar instead. Lebanese cuisine is generally a good choice for eating out, with a variety of starter options that are usually simple and UPF-free.
"For grabbing lunch at work, especially on the high street, it can be more challenging. Aim for simple dishes like vegetable or grain salads, substituting the dressing in the container with olive oil and lemon juice, or bring your homemade dressing in a small container. Sushi is another good choice, with many dishes like sashimi and some nigiri being simple combinations of rice and fish – soy sauce is usually fine to use.
"Bringing lunch to the office or assembling a meal from supermarket ingredients is another option. Pre-packaged mixed grain pouches can be combined with lean proteins or cheese for an easy office kitchen creation. Soups, especially fresh ones, are also a great choice, and you can pair them with your homemade bread."
Is alcohol a UPF?
"It’s about knowing which drinks to choose. Alcohol production methods hugely differ. Wine, beer and cider would only be considered ultra-processed for sugary, fruit-flavoured versions such as cider. Spirits, both white and brown, are ultra-processed because the distillation includes various additives.
"And please bear in mind, there are no health benefits to drinking alcohol!"
I am vegan - is it harder to eliminate UPFs?
"Adopting a vegan diet doesn't have to be more challenging, as long as you're not overly dependent on convenience foods, which are often UPFs, particularly the meat substitutes. Cooking vegan meals from scratch can be highly nutritious, utilizing affordable ingredients like beans, pulses, and lentils. If you're pressed for time and opt for convenience foods, it's important to read the labels. Some bean or nut-based alternatives, like burgers, tend to be less processed and are a preferable choice."
Is it possible to ditch UPFs if you are time-poor?
"Even if you're short on time, there are ways to reduce your intake, though it might mean dedicating a bit more time to food preparation. Batch cooking is an excellent strategy for ensuring you always have UPF-free meals ready during busy times. Additionally, there are numerous simple dishes that can be prepared in under 10 minutes and are not UPFs. For example, an omelette paired with salad, jacket potatoes topped with cheese or tuna (mixed with Greek yogurt instead of mayo), or a quick stir-fry.
"A favourite for times when I'm busy is a quick egg fried rice. I use a pouch of precooked whole grain rice, sauté it in a pan with a little oil, and add frozen peas, edamame beans, chili, red peppers, some coriander, a couple of beaten eggs, and soy sauce. It's takes about 5 minutes to prepare."
Can I still eat sugar? (please say yes)
"Yes, sugar itself isn't classified as a UPF - but it's often heavily used in UPFs. And of course consuming a lot of sugar can lead to health issues such as poor dental health, weight gain, and an increased risk of heart problems. Eating it in moderation is acceptable. When trying to reduce UPF consumption, you might use sugar to create homemade versions of snack foods. I prefer using honey as a sweetener, which I also enjoy on my porridge or yogurt in the morning."
Unprocess Your Life (Thorsons, £18.99) by Rob Hobson is out now