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Ultra-processed food: rebalancing our baskets

Our supermarket shopping habits in the UK are some of the unhealthiest in Europe. Compared to our neighbours, our shopping baskets contain the least amount of fresh fruit and vegetables. We also buy the most ultra-processed food. 51% of our basket is ultra-processed, compared to 14% in France and only 10% in Portugal[1].

According to scientific research, eating a highly ultra-processed diet is bad for our health. This growing area of research associates ultra-processed food with problems such as obesity, cancer, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease[2].

With the evidence now forming a critical mass and other national governments aiming to reduce consumption, we’ve released a briefing calling for action in the UK. Our report on ultra-processed food sets out the evidence base and makes recommendations to rebalance our diet away from ultra-processed food and move towards a fresher, healthier and more sustainable diet.

What is ultra-processed food?

All food has been processed to some degree, for example chopping, heating or mixing. Processed food such as tins of beans and frozen veg have an important part to play in our diets. But ultra-processed food is different. This type of food is industrially processed and contains ingredients you wouldn’t find in your kitchen; for example, emulsifiers and preservatives that are commonly found in packaged bread.

Read our report in full for more information on the evidence, classification and identification of ultra-processed food.

Why now?

We’ve been concerned about overly processed food for a long time and want fresh and natural food to be the easy choice for everyone. Our Food for Life Award sets a great example of how we can change the status quo by requiring at least 75% of food in schools to be freshly prepared.

Due to increasing concerns about the risk of highly ultra-processed diets many national governments around the world are introducing guidelines to encourage reduction in consumption.

In the UK, with the government commissioned National Food Strategy currently under way, now is the time to get ultra-processed food on the agenda. If this pioneering strategy is to meet its policy goals to create a healthy and sustainable UK food system, a reduction of ultra-processed food must be included.

What are we recommending?

Our briefing paper makes four recommendations to support this re-balance of the UK diet:

1)  A percentage reduction target for ultra-processed foods

By 2030 the average UK shopping basket will only contain 15% ultra-processed food.

2)  Investment in world-leading food education for all children

Food for Life, TastEd and similar school food initiatives should be championed by the government.

3)  Harness public procurement to normalise healthy and sustainable diets

As a first step, the School Fruit and Veg Scheme should be re-specified to include a higher percentage of better quality, British, local and organic produce.

4)  Re-set the narrative around healthy eating and obesity

Narratives on healthy eating should prioritise rebalancing the diet towards fresh and natural food.

For a more detailed look into the research and our recommendations, read the report in full here.

Read Soil Association Policy Director Jo Lewis' blog, Ultra processed food: bad for climate, nature and health here.

[1] Monteiro, C. A., Moubarac, J.-C., Levy, R. B., Canella, D. S., Louzada, M. L. da C., & Cannon, G. (2017). Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980017001379

[2] Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P., & Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Nutrients, 12(7), 1955. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071955


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