People worried about ultra-processed foods should not dismiss beans on toast as part of a healthy, balanced diet, nutritionists have said.
Eating ultra-processed foods such as ice cream, ham, crisps, mass-produced bread, and breakfast cereal has been linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including an increased risk of some cancers, weight gain and heart disease.
Now the British Nutrition Foundation has said beans on toast may be ultra-processed, but the popular dish can still be part of a balanced diet.
It said some foods that are ultra-processed – including wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, baked beans, tomato-based pasta sauces and fruit yogurts – can be a “convenient and affordable source of some important nutrients”.
British Nutrition Foundation spokeswoman Bridget Benelam said: “For many of us, when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly.
“These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.
“It’s great if you can cook from scratch when you have time, but I know for me, as a working parent, it’s often not an option.
“We need to make healthy eating easier and more affordable, not more difficult and expensive.
“Choosing healthier processed foods is one way that can help people fit healthy eating into their lives”.
New research by the foundation suggests that more people are aware of the term “ultra-processed foods” and are keen to cut their consumption of such products.
A 2021 survey, carried out by YouGov on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation, found that three in 10 (30%) of 2,000 British adults had heard the term.
The poll, repeated in 2023, found that over the two years awareness had increased, with 46% saying they had heard of ultra-processed foods.
In 2021 a quarter of those polled (25%) said they were trying to reduce such foods in their diet but by 2023 this had risen to 33%.
Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats, and may also have artificial colours and flavours.
Examples include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.
Commenting, Matt Lambert, health information and promotion manager at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “Our research shows that what we eat and drink can significantly impact our risk of developing certain cancers.
“One of our cancer prevention recommendations is to limit fast foods and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, as this can help maintain a healthy weight.
“While we should be aiming to cut down on how much processed food we eat, favourite choices like beans on toast are an affordable option for many people and can form part of a healthy, balanced diet.”