James Collier, nutritionist and co-founder of the meal replacement company Huel, has spoken up about the current trend of painting all foods that have gone through processing with the same negative brush.
UPFs have been hitting the headlines regularly in recent months spurred by a plethora of articles, podcasts and programmes in mainstream media, including a recent investigative documentary on the topic on UK mainstream TV .
A BBC programme broadcast in June 2023 explored the UK’s rising diabetes and cancer rates, drawing attention to evidence suggesting this could be linked to the consumption of ultra-processed convenience foods and the chemicals they contain.
But Collier asserts that this has become a popular discussion because humans tend to be drawn to the oversimplification of complex issues and they enjoy categorising things into boxes.
“But we don't live in a black and white world. We live in a very grey, nuanced world, where things are not just one way or another.”
He explains that he believes to say a product is 'unhealthy' because it’s ultra-processed is lazy and reductive.
In the case of Huel, the products are made from oats, rice protein, pea protein, sunflower, flaxseed, coconut oil medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals, as well as components like stabilisers, emulsifiers, and preservatives.
Collier explains that their “nutritionally complete” meal replacements aim to address the challenges of modern eating habits by providing all essential nutrients and phytonutrients, minimising waste, and being environmentally friendly by using only plant-based components.
He says companies such as Huel often produce products that fall into the category of ultra-processed, due to the ease of stability, longevity, and accessibility, that ingredients like emulsifiers, stabilisers, and preservatives offer.
Whilst the ideal might be for consumers to only eat homemade wholefood meals, these processing methods allow the creation of nutrition-filled, longer-life products that fit hectic lifestyles and appeal to taste buds, which are essentially the key consumer purchase drivers.
NOVA is the classification system for defining processed foods, organising food according to the extent and purpose of food processing: Group One is for unprocessed or minimally processed foods; group two contains processed culinary ingredients; group three is for processed foods; and group four is for ultra-processed food and drink.
But Collier suggests that guidelines like NOVA are too literal and should not be relied upon, as such classifications wrongly imply that the more a food is processed, the “worse” it is.
He says that the classification system is useful as an inter-industry guide but that for consumers it is too simple to communicate the nuance of nutrition.
Simon Jurwick, product director at sports nutrition company Bulk, shares concerns that the term “ultra-processed” is “almost being used interchangeably with ‘unhealthy'."
He argues there is little evidence that UPFs alone are associated with negative health outcomes, especially when you consider confounders in research such as smoking and lack of exercise.
“The main concerns are that the public may immediately see any UPF as unhealthy; or, even, any food that isn't natural as unhealthy. You could have a UPF that is nutritionally balanced, but people may automatically assume it's unhealthy.”
But Jurwick considers that the consequences of the UPF debate are less likely to impact active nutrition brands like Bulk, explaining: “I feel an active nutrition consumer is likely to research more into what a UPF is or could be, and is likely to only consume them in moderation.”
Ultimately he thinks consumers should concentrate more on the nutritional value of the products, rather than the processing methods.
“Consumers need information on what constitutes a healthy balanced diet and what role foods, such as UPF, have within that. Education needs to be on what a food does or doesn't contain, as opposed to the specific processing method.”
Consumer blame for a systemic issue
Collier argues that it is important not to judge people based on their food choices, especially considering socioeconomic factors.
He argues this is a conversation built on consumer responsibility and consumer blame but the wider issue of ill-health and poor lifestyles comes down to infrastructure and policy.
He suggests that the best way to help consumers make informed and healthy decisions, is through collaborations between academics, industry professionals, and policy makers, to look at all the attributing factors in nutrition.
He agrees that processed foods should be part of the conversation, but only alongside high-fat-salt-sugar (HFSS) concerns, protein levels, fibre content, micronutrient content, and cost.