Ultra-processed foods: beyond the global hype

Irrespective of bad press, industrially produced breakfast cereals fulfil an essential role here

Well known facts abound in the area of food and health and, of late, one of these putative facts centres on what are termed ultra-processed foods. Their portrayal is peppered with adjectives such as cheap, mass produced, industrially manufactured, hyper-palatable, addictive and laced with food chemicals.

According to recently published data, about half our shopping trolley each week is made up of ultra-processed foods. This statistic originates from a paper in the journal Public Health Nutrition authored by the group from Brazil that coined the term ultra-processed foods and champions the campaign to have governments advise that these foods be avoided, as is recommended in Brazil.

Rather than be emotively blown away by the dread of this food scourge, might we take some time to delve into exactly which foods this Brazilian group classify as ultra-processed?


In Ireland, bread accounts for about 14 per cent of our calorie intake. That it is a staple food here is evident from the panic of bread shortages during Storm Emma. Apparently, not all bread is ultra-processed, according to the aficionados. Only mass-produced bread is. So does that mean that any packaged bread sold in a supermarket, either as national brands or instore brands, is ultra-processed? Your guess is as good as mine.

From a nutritional point of view, bread is bread irrespective of whether it is homemade, made by a supermarket or by a local or national baker. Some might say that certain breads are better for you than others because they produce a lower glucose and insulin response. Well, Dr Cathy Breen, from Loughlinstown Hospital Department of Clinical Nutrition, published a paper (myself and Prof Donal O'Shea were co-authors) in which four type of breads were used: white, wholemeal soda, whole grain and pumpernickel. The first three were "mass produced" in that they were sliced and wrapped and were nationally branded. The study, with type 2 diabetics, showed no difference across all four breads in either insulin or glucose response and neither did they induce any differences in their satiating effect.

Bread is low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates and would be high on the list of foods we should eat regularly according to our national food pyramid. However, so called mass produced breads are a no-no, according to the gurus of ultra -processed foods.

Margarines and spreads

In 1978, myself and the late Dr Pat Upton TD published data on the intake of saturated fats in Ireland. The figure stood at 18 per cent of calories. The target value, nationally and internationally is 10 per cent. By 2001, this figure had fallen to about 14 per cent and currently stands at 13 per cent.

We owe this achievement to the dairy industry, which gave us low fat milk and to the spreadable fats industry that gave us low fat spreads, full fat polyunsaturated fats and the many variations of reduced saturates spreads. Again, the general recommendation for a healthy diet would be to moderate our overall intakes of fat with the highest emphasis on reducing intakes of saturates. These spreadable fats are on the black list of the opponents of ultra-processed foods.

Breakfast cereals

Across the globe, all dietary advice from governments and NGOs, from the WHO to the American Heart Association, is to eat a breakfast and one that is high in complex carbohydrate. Irrespective of the bad press they get, industrially produced breakfast cereals fulfil an essential role here. They offer a very wide range of products high in complex carbohydrates. If needed, we can use stick and carrot to modify our breakfast cereals portfolio to have less sugar, less salt and more fibre.

A little published achievement of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is its salt-reduction programme with industry. Over the period 2004 to 2017, under the guidance of FSAI, the level of salt in breakfast cereals has fallen by 50 per cent. I'm sure more can be done. The bottom line is that ready-to-eat cereals would be seen as an important contributor to a healthy breakfast, which additionally must be affordable, palatable and convenient. The opponents of ultra-processed foods recommend we avoid these foods.

Ready prepared meals

Ready prepared meals are regularly demonised by many individuals and agencies. However, according to a study from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a random sample of 100 prepared meals (full meals, not side dishes) from the UK's leading supermarkets contain less fat, less saturated fat and more carbohydrate and dietary fibre than is found, on average, for 100 randomly selected recipes for main meals, as outlined in books accompanying successful TV series, including such celebrities as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. The prepared meals had equal sugar levels to the chefs recipes but were higher in salt. Nobody is suggesting that we build our diet around convenient prepared meals. But, they are deemed ultra-processed foods and thus they are to be avoided.

Ice-cream (industrially produced) is on the black list as are industrially prepared sauces

It is unthinkable that we would ever issue national dietary policy to avoid supermarket and nationally branded breads, all spreadable fats or all breakfast cereals. If these are taken away from the Irish list of ultra-processed foods, the total contribution of that category now falls to just one fifth of our shopping basket in terms of calories purchased. So what’s left within that 20 per cent of the national diet that needs to be avoided, according to the ultra-processed food opponents?


Ice-cream (industrially produced) is on the black list as are industrially prepared sauces. Now who do you know that makes their own homemade ice-cream which is nutritionally superior to that from supermarket freezers or speciality ice-cream shops? And who do you know who would make their own pasta sauce, their own tomato puree, or their own mayonnaise, horseradish sauce or mustard?

The list includes chocolate, sweets, pies, pasta, pizzas, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, instant soups, desserts, snacks and fruit yogurt. The blacklist also includes “infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products”, cocoa drinks and milk drinks (presumably flavoured milks). Most nutritionists would talk of moderating our intakes of some of these foods and would go along with the Department of Health’s programme of reformulating existing processed foods to make them as healthy as possible.

But suggesting that we avoid them? I don’t think so. There is a global bandwagon decrying the role of ultra-processed foods in national diets.

We are awash with excellent data on the Irish diet that we should use for our own needs and let the bandwagon pass by. Its wheels will eventually come off.

- Michael Gibney is emeritus professor of food and health at UCD. Declaration of interests: the writer does ad hoc consultancy for Nestlé in nutrition profiling and product reformulation, and chairs an international research consortium on breakfasts funded in part by Cereal Partners Worldwide.