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Allplants research found 70% of Brits worry about hidden additives Source: Getty Images

The broadcast of BBC’s Panorama, Ultra-Processed Foods: A Recipe For Ill Health?, has ignited discussions about the consequences of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) on the nation’s health. As the evidence mounts, more and more people are aware and questioning what we feed ourselves. It’s time to sound the klaxon for change from Big Food and the regulators.

While health fads have pulled in all directions on what constitutes a healthy diet, the one reliable constant is that prioritising whole foods over ultra-processed alternatives is always best. What you don’t get in the famously healthiest Blue Zone communities around the world are a glut of “food products” laden with unfamiliar chemicals and industrialised processes that break down the integrity of food and its nutritional value. Likewise, the Mediterranean diet is not found at the bottom of a crisp packet. Yet, why does it take a documentary to wake us up to what we already know?

Panorama highlighted that the UK is grappling with an epidemic of chronic illnesses, witnessing alarming spikes in diabetes and cancer cases. Also, disturbingly, UPFs now make up over 50% of what Britain eats, making us one of Europe’s highest UPF consumers. Increasing evidence points to the harmful effects of the chemicals, additives and industrialised processes used by corporates to deliver products that are more addictive, tasty, convenient, cheap, and profitable.

Here’s the thing: these UPF additives are not what any of us use in our home cooking. It takes highly qualified food scientists on big budgets to put aspartame into a processed product. You might be surprised to learn UPFs don’t just include ‘junk food’ but also many products marketed as ‘healthy’ despite their ingredients and true health value.

We expect UPFs could and should become the new cigarettes, with major regulatory and consumer behaviour change that leads to future generations questioning how we once ate in such a self-destructive way. This change is what people want: a survey commissioned by Allplants revealed 70% of Brits worry about hidden additives, 87% believe ready meals should be healthier, and over 50% want to see legislation that requires ready meals to contain only whole foods.

The solution is simple: industry decision-makers collectively prioritising whole foods over ultra-processed alternatives. But how is this possible to deliver at scale, given the insatiable consumer need for cheaper and easier solutions at meal times?

From food manufacturers and retail leaders to merchandising decision-makers and store managers, we must all shift our collective focus towards providing nutritious, minimally processed food. It is a moral obligation to do so. We want to see the whole system of gatekeepers embrace this approach and accelerate the change, enabling scaled consumer access and choice.

Consumers deserve convenient and delicious food without health compromises. With a concerted effort, we can make UPFs a relic of the past. And who knows, maybe we can turn this fair isle into the next feted Blue Zone for longer, happier and healthier lives.