The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) has responded to a recent report that aimed to establish a relationship between ultra-processed foods and obesity.

The report titled ‘Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in 19 European Countries’ found that more than half of food bought by UK consumers was ultra-processed. The term covers all food containing industrially-processed ingredients and additives.

The study found that out of the 19 countries observed, Portugal consumed the least ultra-processed foods at 10.2%, with a similar figure reported for Italy (13.4%), Greece (13.7%) and France (14.2%). The countries that consumed the most were the UK (50.7%), Germany (46.2%) and Ireland (45.9%).

In response, the IFST said that food processing is a basic part of preparation and it is vital for the safety and taste of food products.

“The fact that the finished dish has been through processing in an industrial environment—or indeed that other ingredients or additives have been used in the process—does not make the finished products less nutritious or inherently ‘bad for you’, a spokesperson told Food Manufacture.

The relevance of consumption of such [ultra-processed] food and beverage products to health outcomes is not validated by science and has little relevance to nutrition.”​

The study published by Public Health Nutrition used the NOVA system to rank all foods from A to F based on their degree of healthiness, with unprocessed fruits and vegetables earning an A rating and ultra-processed foods earning an F.

The British Nutrition Foundation agreed with the IFST’s findings, adding that the report failed to take into account different types of processed foods. Traditionally unhealthy processed foods such as confectionary and fried snacks were grouped with healthier processed foods such as bread and breakfast cereals.

​“Conversely, some of the foods that are in the less processed categories are those that should be limited in the diet such as salt, sugar, honey and butter. Therefore, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the effects suggested in this study,” said the BNF.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) weighed in on the issue, saying that processed foods have become healthier in the last decade due to improved practices by manufacturers.

An FDF spokesperson said: “In the last decade food and drink manufacturers have reduced the sugar, salt, fat and calories in their product ranges, and there is now a greater variety of healthier products available to shoppers than ever before.”​

However, British Heart Foundation senior dietitian Victoria Taylor said: “The problem with ultra-processed foods is that they are high in saturated fat, salt and sugars. Too much of these can seriously impact our health, putting us at greater risk of heart attack and stroke. As a nation, we should be making a greater effort to eat less of these types of processed foods, like sweet treats, chocolate and sugary drinks.”