The complexity of the science of Ultra Processed Foods

9th October 2023

Food structure expert Professor Pete Wilde explains the current complexities with Ultra Processed Food and why not all are unhealthy

“Our research, together with other groups around the world, is increasingly demonstrating the importance of the structure of our food upon its nutritional impact. The structure affects if and how nutrients are made available during digestion, how quickly they are digested, how rapidly they appear in our bloodstream, and the quality of nutrients delivered to the gut microbiota.

A good example of the importance of food structure is found in vegetables, fruit, legumes and seeds. Intact cells in fruits, vegetables and seeds can slow down their digestion, releasing sugars more slowly and avoiding blood sugar fluctuations. Slower digestion also reduces our appetite, so we tend to eat less.

Processing fruit, vegetables and seeds in a way that breaks down their structures means that they are digested more quickly, energy is released more rapidly, and hunger will return sooner.

Nutrition and food structure are important for our health

The structure of food, what we call the food matrix, plays a role in determining how “healthy” food is, as well as the ingredients such as the amount of sugar, fat and salt. It’s important to consider both the food matrix and nutrition when assessing foods, rather than over-simplistically focusing on one, as the recent polarised coverage of UPFs has done.

Foods with differing degrees of different structures can appear in all categories of processed foods. Homemade cakes or cheesecake are not considered processed, but contain high levels of sugar and fat, including saturated fats, and release energy rapidly after eating them.

Wholegrain bread, which is high in slowly-digested in wholegrain structures that we digest slowly, may be considered as ultra-processed but is an important source of fibre.
That said, many UPFs are high in salt, fat and sugar and are of poor nutritional quality. But this type of food can be present in all types of food, from homemade to artisanal toor ultraprocessed.

It remains important that we assess food and diets on their overall nutritional merits and structure, rather than simply on whether they have been processed or not.

Communicating the complexity

I was invited to take part in a Science Media Centre briefing on the topic of Ultra Processed Foods, in response to concerns raised in the media about the harms UPFs may be doing to our health.

The briefing resulted in a number of stories in the media presenting a more balanced view of the current science around ultra-processed foods. It is a grey area, but science isn’t black and white and it’s important to communicate the nuance and complexity.

Understanding this food science allows us to identify foods which are beneficial to health, that support everyone to make healthier choices. These are often whole foods, and unprocessed fruit and vegetables. But there are also processed and ultra processed foods that are beneficial to our health. A number of products are now on the market, that have resulted from innovative research to improve the health impacts of foods, to allow consumers people to lead a healthier more balanced lifestyle.

The danger is that those food companies that are producing foods that have verified scientific evidence supporting their health benefits have no incentive to produce them if consumers turn away from them because purely on the basis that they are processed.

Most of our research is funded by you

One article appeared to seek to discredit the panel over the members’ links to the food industry. These links were declared and provided to the journalists, including the author of the newspaper article (who didn’t attend the briefing).

The vast majority, more than 95% of my research, has been publicly funded through UK Government Research Councils and the EU. This research has been published in over 135 peer-reviewed article and has helped us to understand the mechanisms by which some UPFs can be harmful to health.

A small amount of research has been collaboratively supported by various food companies over the years. This industry-funded research has mainly been to tackle specific issues around food processing and functionality.

As a government publicly funded supported institute, we are encouraged to engage with industry to maximise the impact of our publicly funded research, to translate the findings towards benefiting the public good. Working with industry also helps us to access processing technologies so we understand the role of processing in a real world environment.

So we work with food companies from time to time to try and help improve the health impacts of foods, but as an institute this constitutes less than 10% of our funding. Our work with industry is subject to policies to ensure we work ethically, independently and aligned to the Quadram institute’s mission to deliver healthier lives through innovation in gut health, microbiology and food.”

Professor Pete Wilde is a Research Scientist who has over 40 years of experience working on the importance of food structure on the properties of food and how this relates to nutrition and health.

He was recently invited to take part in a background briefing for news journalists on what the science says about ultra-processed foods (UPFs). This was organised by the Science Media Centre in response to concerns raised in the media about the harms UPFs may be doing to our health.

Related People

Related Targets

Targeting food composition

Food Composition

Targeting Future Foods

Future Foods

Related Research Areas

A green background with an illustration of a gut full of microbes.

Food, Microbiome and Health