Low on nutrients, high on additives and very cheap to produce, ultraprocessed foods are linked to reduced lifespan, increased obesity, diabetes and heart disease
As the British Medical Journal (BMJ) wrote recently new evidence shows "positive associations between consumption of highly processed (“ultra-processed”) foods and risk of cardiovascular disease and death". Other studies have also associated ultraprocessed foods with increased cancer risk
But why should you worry about that, you're health conscious and don't eat rubbish, right? The bad news is most sports nutrition is actually ultraprocessed food.
A simple 5-point checklist to spot ultraprocessed sports nutrition:
1. Can you find the ingredients list?
Whether on a product’s website or on the packaging itself, are the ingredients hard to find or read?
On products are they under a flap, behind a peel-off label, written in multiple languages with the English version last despite the brand being based in an English-speaking country, or printed in a font so small even Superman would struggle to read it?
On a product’s website do you need to perform more than one click or scroll from the product page to find them? Are they on another page or missing altogether? Do headings for ‘nutrition information’ or ‘ingredients’ open sections that tell you a lot about the product but still fail to list the actual ingredients?
If any of the above are happening, it's very likely you’re looking at ultraprocessed food.
2. Do the ingredients read like a chemistry experiment?
Is the ingredients list full of things you can recognise as obviously manmade or realise you don’t know what they are at all?
Common ultraprocessed categories include: sweeteners, preservatives, humectants, colouring, emulsifiers and flavouring.
Common ultraprocessed ingredients include: maltodextrin, potassium sorbate, sucralose, soy crisps, sodium benzoate, white chocolate (white chocolate does not exist in nature, it’s brown or nothing), aspartame, acesulfame K, potassium sorbate, maltitol and polydextrose.
If the ingredients read like a chemistry experiment, it’s ultraprocessed food.
3. Is the product sweet but also 'low-sugar'?
To be legally classed in the UK as low sugar, a product must contain less than 5% sugar. As there is no natural way of making anything taste sweet and reach these targets (for reference most fruit alone is at least 10% sugar) low sugar products that are also sweet are almost always ultraprocessed.
So that ‘low sugar’ double-chocolate-chip-rocky-road-birthday-cake-salted-caramel flavour protein bar you just paid 4x the price of Mars bar for? Almost certainly ultraprocessed food. And if #2 above applies as well, then it's definitely ultraprocessed.
4. Does it contain sweetener and flavouring?
Ultraprocessed food is the chipboard of the food industry and thanks to all that processing, is about as tasty as chipboard too.
Having lost all taste and any appeal thanks to the ultraprocessing, manufacturers have to add this back in with sweeteners, flavours and emulsifiers.
Real food on the other hand tastes and looks good already. No one ever needed to sweeten up an orange, make an almond taste a bit ‘nuttier’ or brighten up a banana so it was a bit more yellow.
Sweeteners, flavourings and emulsifiers = ultraprocessed food.
5. Does it make you feel odd, rubbish or simply fail to deliver on its claims?
When using the product do you experience gas, stomach cramps or stomach upset? Is there an unusual aftertaste or aroma compared to natural versions of things that are the same flavour? Do your energy levels spike and crash during exercise or at work?
Do you have more headaches, spots, rashes or skin issues than usual? Trouble sleeping? Hunger craving and mood swings? Does your immune system feel less resilient than it used to be?
Or are you simply not seeing the promised results, whether that’s weight loss, muscle gain, energy increase, or better health and vitality?
Because they contain little or no real food and few - if any - nutrients, ultraprocessed foods deliver few - if any - nutritional benefits.
If it makes you feel dodgy or doesn't do what it says on the tin, there's a very high chance it's ultraprocessed.