Food processing describes all the steps that raw ingredients go through to become the food and drink we consume. The vast majority of food we eat has undergone some kind of processing, whether in a factory or in the home. This can be as simple as chopping, freezing, heating, fermenting or adding functional ingredients like additives.
Food processing is an essential part of how we can have a healthy and sustainable food system. It allows:
- increased choice and availability of foods throughout the year
- increased shelf life and stability of foods, reducing waste
- more convenience
- reformulation to reduce fat, salt and sugar in foods
- fortification to help the population reach nutritional recommendations.
All foods, including processed foods can be part of a healthy and sustainable diet as shown by the Government's Eatwell Guide.
Despite the many benefits of processed foods, research from the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland shows that some consumers are concerned about additives and processed foods. This webpage provides a range of helpful resources to explain the important role of processed foods as part of a heathy sustainable diet, and the safety and purpose of food additives.
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Why do we process foods and what are the benefits?
Many processes that foods goes through are to make sure they are safe and stay safe for our consumption, from pasteurisation of milk to remove harmful bacteria, the addition of preservatives to prevent food spoiling or removal of toxins found naturally on agricultural products like grains or cereals.
The food industry has been reformulating foods for many years to support dietary recommendations and in response to the Government’s reformulation targets. Compared to 2015, FDF member products contribute 13% fewer calories, 15% fewer sugars, and 24% less salt to the average shopping basket. As well as removing nutrients of concern, processing can support consumers to reach nutritional requirements, by increasing fibre, fruit and vegetable content and vitamins and minerals.
Healthier product innovation is technically challenging, and progress often requires innovation in processes and ingredients to reduce these nutrients whilst still maintaining the taste and texture consumers know and love. For example, use of emulsifiers in low fat sauces such as mayonnaise, reducing the levels of salt and sugar by changing the size and structure of the crystals and fortification of plant-based alternatives with vitamins and minerals.
Processed food supports consumers in a variety of different ways, allergen free and plant-based alternatives support diet and lifestyle choices. Food processing also provides a wide variety of convenient options that saves time compared to always cooking from scratch.
What are food additives?
Food additives are technical ingredients added to food and drink that carry out a specific function, for example antioxidants prevent fats from reacting with oxygen causing them to spoil.
Adding technical ingredients to foods to perform a function has been a common practice for many generations, for example using salt as a preservative or adding plant extracts for colour.
Before any additive can be used in food, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) independently and scientifically assess their safety and decides if it can be used and in what amount. The FSA then regularly reviews the latest science and data to make sure its assessments are based on robust evidence.
As with all other food additives, sweeteners also must undergo a safety evaluation before they are authorised for use. Additional information on the safety of sweeteners can also be found on the NHS website.
How do we define processed foods and why is the term ‘ultra-processed’ unhelpful?
There is no legal definition of processed, minimally processed or ultra-processed foods. The terminology 'ultra-processed foods' (UPF) was devised by a Brazilian research group. Known as the NOVA classification, it defined food according to the number of ingredients, purpose of processing and types of ingredients used. Often when research papers talk about 'ultra-processed' foods they are referring to this NOVA definition, but sometimes they may be using a different definition specific to that research.
Research shows that consumers struggle to understand and classify foods according to the level of processing*. Processed foods play an important role in a healthy balanced diet and demonising foods by the level of processing conflicts with dietary advice.
Food manufacturers always provide nutrition labelling to help consumers make informed choices about what they eat.
Is there research that shows processed food is unhealthy for us?
Some research shows a correlation between high dietary intakes of ‘UPF’ and negative health outcomes, leading to speculation that the level of processing may be the cause of this observation. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition published a position statement that noted uncertainties around the quality of evidence available. They found that the studies are almost exclusively observational and confounding factors such as energy intake, body mass index, smoking and socioeconomic status may not be adequately accounted for. They concluded that the evidence to date should be treated with caution.
Can processed foods help support a balanced diet?
Yes! The term captures a broad variety of foods that contribute to a healthy balanced diet in line with the Government Eatwell Guide – such as breakfast cereal, bread, vegetable-based pasta sauce and dairy alternative milks. The British Dietetic Association* recognises the role of processed foods in supporting populations to meet nutritional requirements and warns against avoiding foods simply based on the number of ingredients they contain.
We welcome the UK Government’s focus on working in partnership with industry to tackle obesity and to improve diets. Our members are continuing to work hard to provide healthier options and smaller portion sizes. For more information on the great work of our members please see our Celebrating Food and Nutrition report.
Food processing and health
FDF members are committed to ensuring people have access to a wide range of food and drinks that can support a balanced lifestyle
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Food processing and sustainability
Our industry is working hard to reduce the impact of food processing on the environment by cutting CO2 emissions, increasing sustainable water use and packaging, as well as reducing food waste.
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IFBA launch Processed with purpose
On 1 February, the International Food & Beverage Alliance (IFBA) launched Processed with Purpose, a global education effort on food processing. The campaign focuses on the critical role that food and beverage industries play to establish a sustainable food system. The campaign aims to educate stakeholders on the benefits of food processing—from safety to sustainability—with messages fully supported by robust, scientific evidence.
The webpage has a number of helpful resources on what is food processing and teh role of processed foods in a healthy and sustainable food system.
FDF members are actively engaged in the IFBA UPF task force, and will be coordinating on best practices and resource sharing.
Webinar: Navigating the ultra-processed food debate
On 22 February, The Grocer will be hosting a webinar titled 'Navigating the ultra-processed food debate'. The FDF's Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Halliwell will participate on the panel alonside others to discuss the latest consumer data and understanding on te topic of UPFs. More details and registration can be found linked below.
New paper published showing not all foods considered ultra-processed are linked to poorer health
A new paper has been published in The Lancet titled 'Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study'. This is a prospective cohort study that aimed to investigate the association of total and sub-group intake of ultra-processed foods (UPF) with the risk of multi-morbidity defined as the co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual among cancer at any site, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Overall the study concluded that higher consumptions of foods classed as UPF were associated with a higher risk of multi-mobidity. However, the sub-group analysis found that breads and cereals classed as UPF were inversly associatioed with the risk of multi-morbidity (with borderline certainty) and only animal based products and articifial and sugar sweetened beverages were positively associated with multi-morbidity risk.
These findings support the view that nutritional composition rather than processing is a key determinate of the associatin with poorer health outcomes.
The study has been covered in the following media articles:
British Nutrition Foundation: roundtable proceedings on processed food
The British Nutrition Foundation has published the proceedings of a roundtable titled: 'How do we differentiate not demonise – Is there a role for healthier processed foods in an age of food insecurity? Proceedings of a roundtable event'. This was accompanied by an editorial by Professor Ciaran Forde titled Processing the evidence to evaluate mechanisms, costs and future solutions.
The roundtable comprised of representatives from academia, policy, behavioural science, communications, health, food science, retail and consumer interests. The group discussed a number of statements in order to identify areas of consensus and areas of further research. There were a number of areas of consensus reached by participants including, lack of an effective definition, not all foods classed as 'ultra-processed foods' (UPF) are nutritionally poor and blanket demonisation of all UPFs is unhelpful for consumers.
Overall participants agreed that the current concept of 'UPF' should not be used in policymaking and supported the need for well-designed studies to provide evidence for plausible mechanisms to help understand the potential biological mechanisms behind the association of UPFs ad poor health outcomes.
British Nutrition Foundation survey
The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) has published a survey showing that consumer concern about ultra-processed food (UPF) has increased. The survey (carried out by YouGov) looked at British adults’ views on processed foods and was previously carried out in 2021. Compared to 2021, more people has heard of the term UPF (45% vs 30%) and were trying to reduce these foods in their diet (33% vs 25%).
BNF highlights that some UPFs can be part of a balanced diets and support people in getting healthier meals on the table. More information can be found here. The BNF has also published their position statement on UPF. This sets out their views on the science behind UPF and health. At present, the BNF believes that due to the lack of agreed definition, the need for better understanding of mechanisms involved and concern about its usefulness as a tool to identify healthier products, UPF does not warrant inclusion within policy.
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FDF members are committed to ensuring people have access to a wide range of food and drinks that can support a balanced lifestyle.
Ensuring food is safe is paramount. The FDF helps our members ensure all their products meet strict UK regulations on aspects such as hygiene, contaminants, food contact materials and additives.