Ultra-processed foods bad for health?

Ultra-processed foods (which apparently include meal replacement meal as well as ice cream, pizza and breakfast cereal) are mooted to be bad for you in this study. Maybe chugging down your Huel is not as good for you as sipping it over the course of 30 minutes or so.

Early days, nothing conclusive really.

Thoughts on it?


It’s a cool study and every month the nutrition team presents a topic/study to talk about so we can all learn a bit more. I did mine a couple of months ago on this study when it was on final review (it was published this month).

You can check out how the term “ultra-processed” is defined here, which can be difficult.

The authors aren’t really sure why people ate more calories with the ultra-processed foods. Eating quickly is just one idea. Another could be the ultra-processed foods are more calorie dense so take up less space in the stomach, so less satiety.

By NOVA definitions Huel is group 4 (ultra-processed) but so are a lot of healthy foods. A chicken salad will be classed as group 4 - chicken, 2 different salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber = group 4 because it contains 5 or more ingredients.

The premise of NOVA is a good idea but it’s too simplistic and tying processing into health doesn’t always work e.g. a tin of tomatoes is seen as worse than raw tomatoes even though the phytonutrients are more bioavailable.

Personally, I think a really important point is the ultra-processed diet resulted in an increase in calories from carbohydrates and fat, but not protein. It comes back to the idea that protein is filling and if you get enough per meal vs carbs and fat, it can help reduce overeating.


Great reply - thanks Dan.

Hi Dan,

I don’t disagree with the overall conclusion of inconclusiveness, but I don’t think that your chicken salad classification is correct. From the definition of NOVA, “[Group 4 foods] are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food” and “[b]ut ultra-processed products also include other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations.”

So I’m pretty sure that your hypothetical (undressed) salad is going to be Group 1.


The above, similar, study published yesterday in the BMJ also found a link with Ultra-Processed foods.

In the Interpretation section, they give lots of hypotheses for the findings, though I’m not sure which (if any) could apply to Huel. Some of these are:

  • Heat treatment leading to neoformed contaminants, such as acrylamide (guessing this doesn’t apply to Huel?)
  • Contamination by contact with packaging - e.g. bisphenol A
  • Some very ill-defined “bioactive compounds specifically contained in ultra-processed food could be contributing to the observed relations”

Interesting stuff, but I’m definitely none the wiser.

I get where you are coming from, sorry I should have been clearer.

When looking at the full document, there’s some key added bits in there and a lot left open for interpretation. It says in group 4 that " These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients." So while a home made chicken salad is group 1 if you buy it prepackaged from a shop and it’s gone through certain processes it could be group 4 but you could argue that same product is group 1.

What I’m getting at is that it’s really difficult to use these classifications alone to determine the effects on health especially when a lot is open to interpretation. Bread and yoghurt is group 2/3 but add an emulsifier (which has no effect on health) and that’s instant group 4. Beer is group 3 but vodka is group 4 because it is distilled but beer is not.

It’s another interesting study, but I agree it doesn’t help much. The authors looked at levels of education and found that the lower the level of education the more ultra-processed foods eaten. But, and it’s a big but, income or some sort of indicator of food security was not measured.

Processed foods i.e. tinned, dried, frozen, prepackaged foods will have a longer shelf-life so less food waste, are cheaper and likely are no less nutritious than fresh foods. It also takes time to make these meals and with a long hours working, kids etc it can make it more difficult. Such a person is less likely to exercise, may be more stressed, sleep less etc. I think processed foods play a part but can also be an indicator of other areas of person’s life which can act as cofounders, and so affect the results.

Yep. That’s about it. A certain amount of common sense has to prevail. But then if you are the sort of person who eats like a vacuum cleaner there is not likely to be a superabundance of that (foodwise anyway). :grin:

I think personal experience is a really important and valuable indicator in regards to this.
My diet has varied massively over the last 15 years and so I know how various diets affect me personally.

-For 4 years I had a super clean, healthy, whole food diet that consisted of only home made Dahl, organic brown rice, quinoa, fresh organic steamed vegetables and eggs, and healthy oils ie coconut, olive, hemp, avocado. No dairy, no meat, no wheat or gluten, no sugar, no processed or tinned food, no alcohol. I also supplemented with vitamins and minerals.
I felt AMAZING - physically, mentally, emotionally. Only downside was if I deviated from this diet, the difference was so noticeable that it really put me off ever having a social meal out or at someone’s house. It really limited my options when out and meant I had to take my own food everywhere I went and always be prepared.

-Prior to this super healthy wholefood diet I ate whatever I felt like and noticed that if I ate processed food: tinned, ready meals, takeaways, bakery, frozen food (other than frozen whole food or veg), processed meat etc, I would feel terrible. Headaches, lethargy, fatigue, poor concentration, joint pain, emotional mood swings, to name just a few really debilitating symptoms.

-Now my diet consists of a combination of healthy whole food (vegetables, fruit, eggs, very occasional organic high welfare unprocessed meat or fish, beans, pulses, rice, quinoa, corn etc), some minimally processed food (e.g tinned beans, pulses, tomatoes, frozen veg, plant milks), and Huel.
I feel almost as good as I did on my purely whole food diet, but with the advantage that my lifestyle doesn’t seem so restrictive anymore and I don’t have to spend all my free time cooking and freezing my dinners for the week, and don’t have to be so prepared when I go out (I now can grab a huel or a huel bar and stick it in my bag).

So… although I personally would consider Huel ‘processed’, it is at least minimally processed in my opinion, and it does consist of whole food and doesn’t have added salt, sugar, msg, and preservatives which is what makes most processed foods unhealthy. Plus, most processed food has been so processed it has very little nutritional value, but Huel is the opposite and actually has very high nutrition for it’s calorie content.
Also, from personal experience, Huel is very satiating and I don’t feel the need to over-eat (either in terms of extra huel or other food).

Meal replacement drinks or protein shakes have the same effect on me as eating ready-meals or processed foods.
Huel seems to have the same effect on me as whole foods.
Proof is in the pudding I guess


Would that be a group 1 pudding, a group 2 pudding, a group 3 pudding or…? zzzzzz :grin:

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It’ll be a 3000ml pudding with an overflow pipe @Bee :wink: :joy:



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There already considering taxing them

Good idea, and bacon and sausages should be top of the list.

A crucial clue as to why the ultra-processed foods caused greater calorie consumption may be that participants ate the ultra-processed meals faster and so consumed more calories per minute. This can cause excess calorie intake before the body’s signals for satiety or fullness have time to kick in.

If you’re drinking 450 calories of Huel from a shaker then it doesn’t matter if you drink it in 10 seconds or 30 minutes. It’s always going to be 450 calories.

Now if you had a row of shakers lined up and were told to ‘drink as many as you can until you feel full’ then that might change the situation, but nobody does that.

I dunno, it could be a new man vs food challenge.

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If you use Huel to replace a healthy, balanced meal consisting of group 1 or 2 foods, then this study would be a slap on the wrist. I doubt many of us are in that situation though!

I use Huel to replace a meal which I’d either miss or would eat something rubbish (probably in group 3 or 4 - so cereal, pre-made sandwich, entire pack of biscuits, etc).

So the way I see it is that I am no worse off, processed food wise, by having Huel - and the likelihood is that I’m getting far better nutrition than what I would have eaten otherwise.

@Howl-UK has a good point as well, my Huel shake is a specific size, so I’m not over eating. Sure, I could go and make some more, but that’s much less likely to happen than I grab another slice of pizza, and another, and another… :pizza::pizza::pizza:

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Well, took a while, but guess here is something again @jeffy89 :stuck_out_tongue:
This time, you can’t blame me for the idea :joy:

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:joy: not just me then!

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I would never say that

Eat 3000 kcal in a single lunch and the day after eat those 3000 kcal splitted in 5 lunchs
You’ll percieve immediately it’s not the same at all

Same for your body

For me, huel being ultra processed food is a real concern and that’s why i tend to limit to the lower possible. I personnaly use huel for mass gaining. I eat regular food as much as i can and i add some huel to reach my quotas. I’m impatient to be able to eat enough regular food but it is too time consuming for now (and too hard !).

The second concern is the fact you can swallow 700 kcal in 30 seconds. Try to do that with the regular food we have been made for… I don’t think your body likes this.

I came across this guy from last year, who has supposed to have eaten 30,000 Big Mac’s since 1972 and has normal cholesterol and blood pressure