Ultra-processed food… How pure is my fridge?

Being a copywriter I have a tendency to look at words in a slightly mechanical way and have come to the conclusion that ‘ultra’ is a prefix that, like its more quantifiable cousin ‘mega’, is perhaps suffering from overuse. Usually associated with things that are good for you, e.g. ultra-marathons and ultra-endurance, I am surprised that ‘ultra’ isn’t up in arms about being included in ultra-processed food, which apparently isn’t good for you.

I wasn’t shocked to read the Guardian’s article about ultra-processed food’s stealthy takeover of our shopping baskets but, as someone who uses usually cooks from basic ingredients, I was surprised to find out that embarking on a diet that is free from ultra-processed food is quite tricky. If you look in the thesaurus, one antonym of ‘ultra’ is ‘middle of the road’ but I am fairly sure that a diet containing no ultra-processed food at all would be so far off the road that it would require a map and compass.

Or maybe that is just how it feels. Eating no food with ingredients that include the NOVA food classification, ‘other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations’ is a tall order, even for someone whose fridge is currently full of sourdough starters, home-fermented sauerkraut, and fresh vegetables. It’s relatively easy to say ‘no’ to my traditional Friday TV dinner curry  but there are definitely ingredients I use regularly that contain some element of the ultra-processed. Here are a few examples.

  • Baked beans (I am not sure how cornflour is ‘modified’)
  • Brown sauce (even HP Sauce contains glucose/fructose syrup)
  • Mayonnaise (I am experimenting with making my own)

Of course, these days we all need to be thinking about the planet’s health as well as our own (clearly these two are related) so I did a bit of research on the environmental impact of ultra-processed food, and some interesting points emerged.

  • Food contributes only 26% of total global carbon dioxide emissions
  • Food processing itself contributes only 4% of total food emissions
  • Food preservatives help combat food wastage, which is a factor in food chain emissions (18% of total food emissions)

When it comes to ultra-processed food, there are other human factors besides health to consider. As a freelance writer, I am lucky. I can (usually) make time in my day to grow my own vegetables and prepare meals from scratch but I can also remember a time when, with a different career and a growing family, these things were impossible. The one thing I would say for the less-processed diet though is that I like the way it takes the emphasis off fats and sugars and allows everything to be a bit more balanced. Whatever your diet preferences, more balance surely has to be a good thing.

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