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Ultra-processed food, ultra-processed obsession

Writer Fran Chorley asks how worried we should really be about ultra-processed food.

News surrounding the dangers of so-called ‘Ultra-Processed Food’(UPF) is becoming almost unavoidable. Research is pouring in from major health institutions, and it’s hitting the headlines hard. Is this simply sensationalism? What counts as UPF? How should we as students respond to the backlash?

As a rule of thumb, UPF is identifiable by extensive ingredient lists often containing stabilisers, emulsifiers, and preservatives. They tend to be cheap, conveniently pre-packaged, and boast a dubiously long shelf life. In short, this means any food that you couldn’t make in your own kitchen. The list of what counts as a UPF is as extensive as you might suppose; on average, they make up over 50% of the UK’s diet. Designed for profit rather than sustenance, these foods are often void of nutritional value. They tend to be addictive and hyper-palatable, thus boosting consumption. As a result, diets high in UPFs have been tied to various health issues, including raised blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. 

There is a stark correlation between the foods that the health organisations are warning us about and the long term tenants of a stereotypical student diet (here’s looking at you baked beans). As a population that is frequently time-poor and budget-conscious, UPF appeals to us. We rely on pre-made pasta sauce, meat-free alternatives, and shop-bought bread. Strikingly, those deemed most offensive are the staples of cafeterias UK wide, to name and shame, I point to the Roll-Over Hot Dog, Pot Noodles and pre-packaged sandwiches. But why should we be worried about this? 

UPF lacks the nutritional content to keep us in the fighting shape required for long library stints and Taylor Swift Hive nights. They can make us lethargic and weaken our immune systems (I have yet to hear of any student in favour of increased tiredness and colds.) Beyond the health risks, UPF poses a significant environmental threat. Their production often involves intensive processing technologies that place strain on the surrounding land and ecosystems. They are almost always packaged in disposable plastic and are notorious for containing substances like palm and soya oil. If you’re keen to limit your ecological impact, rethinking your shopping habits is a good start.

But don’t be too worried. The media’s vilification of UPF is continuous and undeniably overwhelming, but is also often designed to grab the reader’s attention. University is already a tumultuous period and it’s hard to establish your bearings without the compounded shame of not making your own sourdough. A healthy lifestyle can manifest itself in multiple ways; through an openness to new experiences, meeting different people, and taking the time to look after yourself. If this process involves eating food from a tin maybe we should just let it happen. What information about UPF does give us is the opportunity to make more informed choices and to be better aware of the long-term effects of our diets. It’s important to make healthy decisions where you can – this is true of everything – but this should also involve your mental well-being. University is a uniquely unpredictable and exciting period of life – we shouldn’t let ingredient lists stop us from making the most of it.

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