The inconvenient truth about convenience foods

Ultra-processed foods make up nearly half of the average Australian diet. Discover why that’s concerning and how you can cut your intake.

In Australia, two in three adults are carrying too much weight and research shows eating ultra-processed foods is a likely contributing factor.

There are a few explanations for this, including the fact that diets rich in ultra-processed foods are naturally high in kilojoules.

Now a new study suggests there’s another reason too – thanks to a unique combination of carbohydrates and fat, ultra-processed foods have the properties of addictive substances.

Why ultra-processed foods may be addictive

“Most foods that we think of as natural, or minimally processed, provide energy in the form of carbohydrate or fat – but not both,” study co-author Assistant Professor Alexandra DiFeliceantonio says.

In the study, researchers compared an apple, salmon and a chocolate bar: an apple has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of 1-to-0 and a piece of salmon has a ratio of 0-to-1; on the other hand, a chocolate bar, which is an ultra-processed food, has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of 1-to-1, and according to the research, it’s this that appears to bump up a food’s addictive potential.

“Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both,” Assistant Prof DiFeliceantonio, of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in the US, says.

“That combination has a different effect on the brain.”

So, what are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are created by a series of industrial techniques and processes.

While they’re manufactured from food-derived substances, they typically also contain plenty of artificial flavours, colours and food additives but little – if any – whole food.

And despite what you might think, ultra-processed foods aren’t limited to typical junk food or fast foods either.

They also include mass-produced and highly refined products, some of which might be thought of as “neutral” or even “healthy” in some cases, such as diet soft drinks, some fruit juices, flavoured yoghurts, and margarine.

Convenience foods – for example, packet preparations of mashed potato and many heat-and-eat meals – also qualify as ultra-processed foods.

Why ultra-processed foods are bad for your health

Worryingly, ultra-processed foods make up nearly 50 per cent of the average Australian diet.

And unhealthy weight gain isn’t the only health risk that’s been linked to these foods.

Deakin University research has found eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

It’s also established a link between diets high in ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of depression.

“Australians who ate the most ultra-processed food had about a 23 per cent higher risk of depression compared to those who ate the least amount,” study lead author Dr Melissa Lane says.

While the study doesn’t prove that ultra-processed food necessarily causes depression, it shows that the risk increases for people whose daily diet is made up of more than 30 per cent of ultra-processed food.

“Even after accounting for factors like smoking and lower education, income and physical activity, which are linked to poor health outcomes, the findings show greater consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with higher risk of depression,” Dr Lane, of Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre, says.

How to cut back on ultra-processed foods

Dietitians Australia recommends reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods to less than 20 per cent of your total energy intake.

Here are a few easy ways to help reduce your intake of these foods:

Focus on nutrition

Follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines and enjoy a variety of nutritious foods from the five major food groups every day.

Learn how to spot ultra-processed foods

They usually come in packages and typically contain five or more ingredients, including ones that you don’t recognise or wouldn’t have in your pantry at home – for example, hydrogenated oils, food additives expressed as numbers, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Shop smarter

Plan ahead by writing a shopping list, then stick to it as you load up on wholefood items.

To avoid temptation, keep to the perimeter of the store – the middle aisles are where junk foods and ultra-processed snacks are typically found.

Try some simple food swaps

Be realistic; cutting back on ultra-processed foods doesn’t mean you should make all packaged foods off-limits.

It’s often just a matter of making some smart swaps to include less processed alternatives – this can be as simple as choosing whole-wheat packaged bread instead of white bread, or natural yoghurt rather than flavoured, additive-rich varieties.

More on ultra-processed foods, and healthy eating:

Written by Karen Fittall.