Why your ‘healthy’ diet is anything but – and the best swaps to make in 2022

We all want to eat better, but are we making the right choices? Anyone with an interest in health knows they shouldn’t consume junk food all day long, but even if you think you’re making good choices, it’s not always easy.

The ever-more-dominant villain in nutrition is ultra-processed food. You’ll be familiar with such products: brightly packaged, temptingly easy to eat and seemingly good value. 

It’s food that you couldn’t make from raw ingredients at home, with additives that aren’t found in shops – and it is highly addictive.

But avoiding the most obvious examples of UPF isn’t all you need to do. Choosing supposedly healthy options such as higher-protein snacks, vegan meat substitutes and low-fat dairy products means you’re in danger of consuming food with lower nutrition. 

Often these products are high in sugar, refined carbohydrate or fat – sometimes all three – and contain ingredients manipulated to have a long shelf life.

If you’re time-poor, it’s easy to head to the supermarket and not read beyond the health claims on the front of packages. With so much attention being paid to plant-based food – apparently better for us and the planet – vegan substitutes are particularly prominent right now, but they typically contain up to a dozen ingredients, in something advertised as ‘natural’.

Not all processed food is equal, of course. Baked beans fall into the UPF category, but if you find a low-salt, low-sugar brand the fibre and protein are useful. Fruit juices are not UPFs, but in the process of juicing vital fibre is lost, so you’re better off with frozen fruit.

The products below may look healthy, but we’ve read the labels for you. While it’s unrealistic to imagine we can expunge every trace of UPF from our diets, by making a few simple swaps, we can cut down on them drastically.

How to spot ultra-processed food

Check the ingredients label. Does it include things that you can’t buy in a supermarket? Modified starch, maltodextrin, potassium chloride, antioxidants, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids? Then steer clear.

But even this isn’t fail-safe. Increasingly manufacturers are chasing what they call ‘clean label’ – appearing to use fewer, more natural ingredients, and bamboozling consumers by using additives with names we might mistake for being friendly.

Industry-supplier websites are full of ‘clean label solutions’ and some manufacturers are far more bothered about the ingredients list looking good than they are about the product being wholesome.

For example, ‘modified starch’ is replaced by ‘modified cornflour’ and ‘antioxidant’ with ‘rosemary extract’ (actually a deodorised derivative that bears little relation to the real herb). So be suspicious: if it’s not clearly the whole ingredient, then it’s probably an industrial additive.

Not-so-healthy products to avoid

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