Ultra-processed foods and the impact on employee health
Free food in the workplace has never been more commonplace. Whether fuelling workers through meetings or a fully stocked staff fridge, companies offering snacks and drinks have risen from 20% in 2014 to an astonishing 32% in 2018.
This article provides a definition of ultra-processed food (UPF), looks at the implications on employee health, and provides some simple tips to empower you and your employees to reduce UPF intake.
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, a staggering 50% of total energy consumed by adults and 65% by children comes from UPF. Yet these foods are associated with some serious health risks. Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked with increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, cancer, and even mortality. The World Cancer Research Fund indicates that 27-39% of cancers can be prevented by improving diet, exercise, and body composition.
The Nova Classification
The NOVA classification groups foods into 4 categories based on the amount of processing involved:
Group 1: Unprocessed/Minimally Processed - Includes natural foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and grains that undergo minimal alterations.
Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients - These are substances derived from Group 1 foods or nature, such as oils, sugar, and salt.
Group 3: Processed Foods - Produced by adding Group 2 ingredients to Group 1 foods, with most having 2-3 ingredients. Examples include fresh bread, cheese and tinned fish.
Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods - Comprising a multitude of substances derived from food and additives, rarely containing intact Group 1 foods. Examples include breakfast cereals, soft drinks, packaged bread and snacks.
In an ideal world, foods from Group 1 would form the basis of your diet, with Group 3 foods consumed in moderation, and Group 4 foods as an exception.
The impact of UPF on the gut microbiome and overall health is a growing concern. These foods can disrupt the microbiome, affecting mood, the immune system, and overall wellbeing. Additionally, UPF triggers a dopamine response in the brain, leading to cravings and potential overeating. This has been linked to metabolic health issues, such as insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Notably, there is a significant connection between metabolic health and mental health, with poor metabolic health potentially leading to problems like depression.
Some simple tips to reduce UPF consumption
Increase Hydration - Increase the amount of water you drink in a day. For employers this means increasing the availability of water in the office and reducing the number of carbonated drinks available, these often contain high amounts of added sugars and other additives.
Eat Three Proper Meals a Day - Consume three healthy meals to stay satiated throughout the day. If you need a snack, choose whole foods like fruits, vegetables, or nuts instead of UPF. For employers this means reducing the number of biscuits, chocolate, crisps etc provided and increasing the availability of whole foods. Think twice about whether celebrations require sugary foods such as cakes and doughnuts, consider swapping these for a fruit bouquet, crudites and dips, or a healthy delivered meal
Suggestions for quick, easy, healthy lunches for employees during the working day include:
- Tuna nicoise salad & a melon/blueberry fruit pot (Pret)
- Hot smoked salmon & new potato salad or a super nutty wholefood pot + a protein (M&S)
- Bring in leftovers from the weekend and add in some salad leaves, tomatoes and wild rice from the supermarket
Check the Label - Be conscious of the ingredients in food items and opt for those with fewer, recognisable, natural components. Ask yourself, do you have the ingredients at home? If not, it’s likely that the item has been ultra-processed. If possible, try preparing meals at home using fresh, whole ingredients.
Focus on Whole Foods - A diet rich in whole and minimally processed foods, like vegetables and nuts, can provide essential vitamins and nutrients that support overall wellbeing.
Regular health screening and testing
Finally, it's crucial to prioritise regular health screenings and testing to detect any potential health issues early on.
Regular screening can uncover the various impacts that UPF may already be having on your employees’ health. From vital vitamins (UPFs lack essential nutrients such as B12, folate, iron & magnesium) and organ and body function (UPFs tend to be high in fats, leading to elevated cholesterol levels, raised enzymes and creatinine levels), to determining the likelihood of developing diabetes and certain cancers, understanding your health today is vital for making informed dietary choices and improving overall health outcomes. Find out more about our testing plans here.
For more information on this subject, watch this webinar on ultra-processed foods, hosted by Qured with expert advice from Dr Haleema Sheikh, NHS GP and Functional Medicine Advisor, and Natalie Louise Burrows, Nutritional Therapist and Functional Medicine Coach.
Let's work together to make healthier choices and prioritise our own wellbeing and that of our employees.