UPFs: What are they and why do we care?

A blog by Cherrypick, advised closely by Dr Yanaina Chavez-Ugalde, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at MRC Epidemiology Unit in the University of Cambridge.

What do UFO, UPF, and WTF have in common?

Great question. They’re all:

▫ Confusing.

▫ Slightly alien.

▫ Not something you want to be met with on a daily basis.

Given you probably know more about UFOs says a lot about our food education system, but for now we’ll tackle UPFs, which, warning: might cause a few WTFs.

UPFs or Ultra Processed Foods are otherwise known as “food like substances”. If you are after a more technical definition, they’re “industrial formulations”, made mostly from substances extracted from foods, often chemically modified, recombined with a range of additives and with little, if any, whole foods remaining… Wish you hadn’t asked? Sorry, too late. First stage of recovery and all that.

Essentially, UPFs are foods that you couldn’t (and probably wouldn’t want to) recreate in your kitchen at home. If you’re still with us, it’s time to dig a little deeper and open up this can of worms.

UPFs (and their manufacturers) are masterminds in hide and seek. Until you know what to look for, they’re winning every time. A great starting place is to actually look at the packaging, yes including the ingredients list, and ask yourself three simple questions:

  1. Do I have the ingredients on the back-of-packet in my kitchen or could I easily buy them in a supermarket? If the answer is "no", it’s likely that that product is a UPF. Watch out for words like emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, thickener, modified, malted extracts and E-numbers. (1)
  2. Can I pronounce all the ingredients on the back of the packet easily? Again, if the answer is "no", it’s likely that product is a UPF and that ingredient is not something you could cook with in a regular kitchen. 
  3. Are there "health claims" on the packet? UPFs often have buzzy and attractive marketing claims on their packaging to make you think a product is good for you (called "health halo effect"), such as “no added sugar”, “high protein” or “low calorie”. These are often disguise-tactics for products that are not actually nutrient-dense. Culprits are often snacks such as cereal bars and smoothies and, unfortunately, products aimed at children. (2)

Anything can be a UPF, from meals to snacks, chewing gum or drinks. Common examples eaten in the UK are fizzy drinks and juices, ready-meals, sausages, cereals, many yoghurts and confectionery. The devil’s in the detail, and we’ll get much more into how to tell if something is a UPF in future posts, including our own method to classify products. The "devil" in this case is still being actively researched and defined, but we’ll be here to bring you the latest updates to help keep confusion at bay.

Tissues at the ready now: UPFs are most of what we eat and they’re making us sick

In the UK, 57% of the calories consumed are from UPF sources (3), compared to Mexico at 30%, Chile at 19% and those who eat a Mediterranean diet at just 15% UPF consumption. That’s over half of the calories that we consume on a DAILY BASIS coming from UPFs. Can’t be true, surely? It’s easier than you think… Presenting: a day in the life of a working Brit:

Let’s start with breakfast: A popular (sweetened) breakfast cereal, slice of toast and jam, crumpet or a glass of juice.

Onto lunch: The infamous meal deal including a bag of tortillas and a fizzy drink or sweetened fruit juice.

Snacktime: A trying-too-hard-to-tell-you-it’s-healthy protein bar and an apple on the run.

Dinner: It comes around in the blink of an eye and between the commute and your exercise class you’re striding into your local supermarket and reaching for the closest “2-of-your-5-a-day” ready-meal something with “bake me now” garlic bread on the side (and a bag of salad… 😉).

And finally, chill. While you’re tucking into a well-deserved packet of Marylands on the sofa in front of Netflix - or is that just us?

Okay, okay. You might not be eating all of these things in one day, and we’re not trying to say there’s no goodness in the form of fibre, protein, fresh fruit and veg in and amongst all the things mentioned above (in most cases). But, you can see how easy it is to eat more UPFs than you had intended on consuming, just by buying slightly more instantly edible food.

And why wouldn’t you buy more convenient food? Our lives are impossibly busy, and seem to get busier all the time. We have little time to plan, shop and cook meals and supermarkets and our food system in the UK make it so easy for us to pick up food that needs little to no preparation, and happens to taste great. Because it’s been designed to do so. It’s almost impossible to escape UPFs in our foods, unless you have some knowledge and help to guide you through it. In fact, poor diet is the leading cause of early death according to research and, shockingly, has overtaken smoking (4).

Why does all this matter?

It’s tasty, cheap, conveniently available and keeps the cupboards full of interesting, colourful and exciting stuff. Unfortunately, a large, and growing, body of research has found:

    ▫ A strong association between high intakes of UPF (>20% of calories from UPFs) and risk to health (5).

    ▫ These are health risks such as being overweight or obese, type 2 diabetes, cognitive and mental health, dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death from any cause (5).

    ▫ Among children and adolescents, UPF consumption can represent as much as 80% of their daily calorie (6). And, scary fact incoming… Childhood obesity is set to rise to 50% globally in over 5s by 2035 (7).

    ▫ Worst of all, obesity is hard to reverse and 60%-85% of children living with obesity remain obese in adulthood, with all the impact that comes with that (8).

We will dive into this pool of research and break it down a lot more in the coming weeks and months. 

But, every cloud and all that...

And now for the good bit. The light at the end of the dark, sweet and probably a bit sticky UPF tunnel. There are levers we can pull to get us out of the rut we are in and Cherrypick is going to help you to pull them. Let’s stop sleepwalking into this convenience food-fuelled health crisis.

Cherrypick have run the numbers and the scores on the doors are in. Our 2023 dataset of over 100,000 orders showed that we reduced users' UPF consumption by a whopping 26% compared to their Sainsbury's baskets prior to using Cherrypick. And this is without ever mentioning the word UPF to our users. Or making them read a blog post about UPFs… Ahh. You caught us.

And on top of that big juicy 26% reduction, the overall percentage of UPFs (as a % of calories) purchased by our users is just 28.7%. That is almost HALF the national average, at 57%.

But “How?!” we hear you cry. “Cooking from scratch!” we yell back. (At least this happens in the panto that plays in our heads). Cherrypickers buy ingredients to cook tasty meals. Cherrypickers then use these ingredients to to create delicious meals from easy-to-follow recipes that they selected when planning and shopping. Keeping up? And with that, they get more whole foods (in particular plants) in their basket, their meals are planned and, yes, they save money while they do it. Plus, everything is delivered straight to their door by our supermarket partner. Simple. As. That. In fact, 53% of our users tell us that they now eat fewer ready meals and 46% order fewer takeaways. And we’re just getting started.

If you haven’t tried Cherrypick, download the app today and see for yourself how fun, tasty and easy life can be when your meals are planned in minutes and the ingredients are delivered to your door.

Citations and references:


2.  Bite Back campaign report on Health Halo Claims (https://biteback.contentfiles.net/media/documents/Dont_Hide_Whats_Inside.pdf

3. Madruga M, Martínez Steele E, Reynolds C, Levy RB, Rauber F. Trends in food consumption according to the degree of food processing among the UK population over 11 years. Br J Nutr. 2022:1-8.

4.Ultra Processed People by Chris Van Tulleken taken from Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017

5. Zhang Y, Giovannucci EL. Ultra-processed foods and health: a comprehensive review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2023;63(31):10836-48.

6. Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases-Related Dietary Nutrient Profile in the UK (2008–2014) https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/5/587

7. World Obesity Atlas. https://www.worldobesityday.org/assets/downloads/World_Obesity_Atlas_2023_Press_Release.pdf

8. Predicting adult obesity from childhood obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis, 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26696565/