It is very easy to get a little overwhelmed by health and nutrition advice because a lot goes into maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Whether it’s the ongoing debate around the benefits of a keto diet, discussions around processed foods or vegans just being vegans, it is easy to get lost in all the sauce.

There is however, one recommendation experts globally can agree on and that is the need to limit processed foods in your diet. Almost all foods are processed to some degree though, so it might be difficult to differentiate between what is good for you and what isn’t.

An easy way to get around this is by knowing all there is to know about ultra-processed foods.

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According to a study by Cambridge University, a general way to identify ultra-processed foods (UPFs) is to check to see if its list of ingredients contain at least one item characteristic of the ultra-processed food group, which are food substances that are never or rarely used in kitchens. These substances are also known as ‘cosmetic additives’ because their sole function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing to consumers.

Clinical dietitian Mbali Mapholi said another way to spot ultra-processed foods is to watch for how they are marketed. “They use aggressive marketing and very bold marketing to advertise processed foods,” she said.

She also pointed out that reading the ingredients list will come in handy.

“Look out for foods that have a long list of ingredients that could not be found in the home kitchen or have gone through processing methods that cannot be recreated at home such as hydrogenation, extrusion, moulding and pre-processing for frying,” Mapholi explained.

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Food substances that are almost always found in processed foods include: hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, ‘mechanically separated meat’, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrate’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, soluble or insoluble fibre, hydrogenated or interesterified oil; carbohydrate or fat which are neither foods from NOVA classification group 1 or group 3, nor culinary ingredients from NOVA group 2, according to the Cambridge Study.

Keshni Naidoo, a registered dietician said the NOVA classification system groups all foods according to the nature, extent and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo. She outlined the 4 groups and the common foods that fall under each category:

Group 1: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods

Examples include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, fungi such as mushrooms, nuts, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk, herbs, spices, flour made from wheat/ oats.

Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients

Examples include vegetables oils, butter, lard, sugar, honey, table salt. These ingredients are used to cook foods in group 1.

Group 3: Processed foods

These include canned or bottled vegetables or legumes (pulses) preserved in brine; whole fruit preserved in syrup; tinned fish preserved in oil; some types of processed animal foods such as ham, bacon, pastrami, and smoked fish; most freshly baked breads; and simple cheeses to which salt is added.

Group 4: Ultra-processed foods

Examples are carbonated soft drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; chocolate, candies, ice-cream; packaged breads and buns; margarines and other spreads; cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes, breakfast cereals, energy bars, energy drinks, pre-prepared ready-to-heat products including pies and pasta; nuggets, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts.

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Why are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

According to reports, not all processed foods are unhealthy. For example some seeds need to be processed in order to make oil. Other foods need processing to make them safe for consumption, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria.

It is foods that have large amounts of salt, sugar and fat that pose a threat to your health.

“UPFs are of poor nutrition. They are usually high in energy while very low in vitamins and minerals. High consumption of these foods especially by kids have contributed to high childhood obesity in children. These foods tend to be high in sugar and very low in fibre,” said Mapholi.

Adults with a diet that is high in UPFs are also in danger because according to Naidoo it can result in a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, cancer, depression and gastrointestinal disorders.

One of the main sources of UPFs happens to be the one food item most families cannot live without, breakfast cereals.

Not only are children big fans of breakfast cereals but adults are too, which might make it difficult to get rid of them in the home without causing panic.

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The worst part is that even though there are plenty of options to choose from, with over 50 different types available in South Africa alone, most cereals are ultra-processed even if they claim to be the ‘healthy’ option.

This is because regardless of the front of the box claiming the cereal is jam packed with iron and vitamins, if you look at the nutritional information on the back you will probably find that it contains a lot of sugar, salt, colouring, flavourings and preservatives.

Breakfast cereals are also heavy in carbohydrates, which clinical nutritionist, Juli Keene, claims isn’t ideal for kick-starting your day.

“Carbohydrate-heavy means that even the few types of cereal that are lower in added sugars still affect the body like sugary foods, because they mainly contain carbohydrates and little to no protein or fat,” Keene told Insider.

Depending on the brand of cereal you enjoy, whichever ingredients appear higher on the list means the greater the quantity per serving.

For example, Coco Pops Fills have 28.9 grams of sugar per 100 grams which according to a study by BussinessTech, accounts for 29% of each serving. It also has 64.00 grams of carbohydrates for the same serving.

Bokomo’s Creme Soda Otees have 38.6 grams of sugar per 100 grams of cereal while the normal Coco Pops have 33.1 grams of sugar per serving.

All hope is not lost though because Corn Flakes (both Kellogg’s and Bokomo) have a much lower sugar content, with both having 3.10 and 2.60 grams of sugar per serving and 28.00 and 29.00 grams of carbohydrates respectively.

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While Nutrific Wholewheat Biscuits and Weet-Bix Lite have an even lower sugar content of 2.0 grams and 1.1 grams per 100 grams respectively.

“Reading nutrition labels is a great tool to spot an unhealthy cereal. Avoid products high in fat (17.5g or more per 100g), high in sugar (22.5g or more per 100g) or high in salt (1500mg or more per 100g),” explained Naidoo.

Experts suggest limiting your breakfast cereal intake, Keene offered a few alternative dishes.

She told Insider that she recommends having meat like bacon, paired with a side of fruit, such as a cup of berries.

Smoothies, fruit soups and eggs were also on her list of alternatives.

However, Naidoo said that not all cereals are bad for you and gave some of her recommendations.

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“Cereals I would recommend are rolled oats, all-bran flakes, whole-wheat cereal, unrefined whole-grain cereals and unrefined sorghum,” she said.

“In saying this, you still need to choose low fat alternatives and be sure to look at the amount of added sugar in products,” she added.

For more tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle you can follow Naidoo on Instagram @keshnidietician and Mapholi @urbandietitian.