What are ultra-processed foods and are they safe to give to children?

Baby, hands and mess in chair with food for mealtime or appetite, self feeding and learning to eat with sensory experience. Boy toddler, beans and growth development or milestone and nutrition.

by Joanna Dunbar |
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The term UPF (ultra-processed foods) has been flying about – usually attached to health warnings about foods we all buy and eat. So, what are ultra-processed foods and are they harming our children? Jane McClenaghan is nutritional therapist at Vital Nutrition. She explains, “Ultra-processed foods’ (or UPFs) are foods that have several processing steps and include additives and preservatives. These are the ones that we want to limit in our kids’ diets.”

The headlines about UPF have made for stressful reading – especially when you are responsible for what goes on your family’s plates. There have been stark warnings about the items we all reach for like breakfast cereal, ice cream, cheese and even bread but don’t panic. Jane says, “It is easy to reach for convenience foods to help save you time as a busy parent, but some convenience foods are better than others.

Processed foods can be an important part of a healthy diet.”

However, as with many things, there are degrees of just how healthy some foods are. Jane explains how some of the foods parents are most concerned about should be approached – and – phew – it doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch when planning your family’s meals!

Are baked beans an ultra-processed food? “Yes, but baked beans are a great source of fibre so still make a good mid-day meal for toddlers or busy parents.”

Be dairy aware: “Cheese is an important source of calcium for growing children, but choose real cheese, rather than cheese strings. Cheddar, or Philadelphia are healthier options for your little ones than processed cheese or Dairylea. Look at the ingredients list on your ice cream and choose one with as few ingredients as possible – vanilla is usually best.”

Select your pasta sauce carefully: “Pasta is a store cupboard essential for most families. Most pasta just contains 100% durum wheat. It can be the sauces we use that add additional, unwanted ingredients. Using passata instead of pasta sauce as the base for your Bolognese is a better option.”

Is bread a UPF? “Flour, salt and yeast is all it takes to make a decent loaf of bread. Many food producers and supermarkets are cutting right back on the added ingredients like flour improvers and preservatives. A better choice than white sliced bread is a wholegrain or seeded bread, but if that is a step too far for your kids, then I suggest you read the label and choose a bread without any hidden nasties.”

Is breakfast cereal okay? “Many of the cereals aimed at children are packed with sugar. Give your little ones a better start to the day with cereals like Weetabix or use oats to make porridge or overnight oats, and have the bright and shiny, ultra-processed versions every now and then. Less is more!”

Can I avoid ultra-processed foods?

It might feel daunting when you are trying to tweak what goes in your supermarket trolley, but Jane advises parents to start slowly: “It can take a little while to change, but a good place to start is looking at the ingredients list. Do you recognise all the ingredients listed as a food, or does the label read more like a chemistry experiment?! The shorter the ingredients list the better.”

Reducing ultra-processed food items isn’t just for the good of little ones. The whole family can benefit. Jane tells us, “Making small changes to your family’s diet to cut back on UPFs will have big benefits for all of you. Helping with weight management, reducing your risk of disease, helping to improve your energy, mood and sleep – there are big benefits to making small changes to your diet for the good of your health.”

Batch cooking can also come in handy here. If you’re making a curry, stew or Bolognese from scratch, freeze a few extra portions so you have a UPF-free meal when you’re in a hurry. Similarly, making cookies or cakes at home – when you have the time – will avoid the preservatives and added sugars shop-bought ones contain.

The UPFs hiding in your home

There could be UPF-laden tins and packets lurking in your cupboards or freezer. Jane explains that a UPF isn’t always obvious to spot. “Most of us associate UPFs with brightly coloured, highly processed foods, but it could be that there are a few UPFs making their way into your diet that are being marketed as healthy options.”

Some examples of everyday ultra-processed foods include cereal bars; crisps; sweets; processed meats like sausages and ham; low fat yoghurts.

We may have been brought up thinking it’s best to swerve fat, but low-fat options are a lot more processed. As Jane tells us, “Avoid margarines and low-fat spreads – only saturated fat is solid at room temperature unless it has been processed. Butter is a better option! Watch out for soups and sauces with emulsifiers and stabilisers and vegan meat-free meals – vegan fake meat is most definitely a UPF.”

What about baby food?

Perhaps you are on the verge of weaning a baby and in the past have automatically reached for shop-bought baby food. Don’t panic – no one is saying you must ban pouches! Jane has a few tips about which ones are best. “Every now and then you will be in a situation where you need a quick and handy option. Some of the pouches and jars are a decent enough option. Look out for brands like Ella’s Kitchen and Mamia that contain good quality ingredients without any hidden baddies.”

As a freelance writer, Jo Dunbar covers parenting, health and lifestyle with the odd opinion-based rant and celebrity interview thrown in. Before freelancing (and juggling journalism with two young sons), Jo was on staff at Good Housekeeping, Bella, Woman and The Mail on Sunday. When not typing furiously or refereeing the kids, Jo can be found pulling on her trainers for a gentle run or baking up a storm in her quest to produce the perfect brownie batch.

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