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Ultra-Processed Britain: time for a political response

Rob Percival, Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association, sets out the case for action to address the health, environmental and animal welfare consequences of growing dependence on ultra-processed food.

April 2024

The UK consumes the most ultra-processed diet in Europe. As defined by NOVA classification, ultra-processed foods (UPF) are distinguished from whole and traditionally processed foods by industrial processing techniques and a corporate profit motive. Encompassing a wide range of products – from soft drinks to snack foods, burgers to industrial ready meals – a growing body of evidence is linking diets rich in ultra-processed foods to obesity and chronic disease.

The NOVA classification system is a hybrid, defining UPF according to both the ‘degree’ of processing and the ‘purpose’ – that purpose typically being product design for profit maximisation. UPF are corporate confections designed to displace whole or traditionally processed foods and generate novel eating patterns (snacking etc.), and they are engineered for repeat purchase.

In the context of a globalised food system, the UPF model has been very successful. Ultra-processed products are displacing traditional cuisines and indigenous food cultures worldwide, part of a dietary transition shaped by social, biological, and economic drivers. Underpinning this transition is a production paradigm characterised by corporate capture, trade liberalisation, agrochemical intensification, and the mass production of commodity crops and factory farmed animals. The externalities for climate, nature, and animal welfare have been well documented.

How governments are responding

Ultra-processed diets are a food system challenge, requiring action on the political dynamics of both production and consumption, and political responses are now being enacted. Some governments have sought to restrict marketing and advertisements, while others are designing taxes and dietary guidelines. The most ambitious dietary guidelines have been introduced in Brazil, with health and sustainability concerns integrated, and a strong steer given towards the consumption of whole foods, in great diversity, sourced where possible from nature-friendly farming systems.

Not all authorities are convinced that we know enough to act. While policies framed around UPF have been introduced or recommended in countries as diverse as Canada, Uruguay, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, France, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, and Peru, authorities elsewhere have been more hesitant, including in the UK, US and the Nordics. But as evidence of harm continues to pile up, the hesitant might soon be won round.

Ultra-processed diets in the UK

UPF have been the focus of a recent inquiry in the UK House of Lords by the Committee on Health, Diet and Obesity. Throughout the spring, expert witnesses have been called to the stand, voicing diverse opinions on the science of UPF. But one area of clear consensus has emerged, concerning the benefits of whole foods. Not every witness believed authorities should warn against UPF, but there was broad agreement that government should explicitly promote diets based around whole and minimally processed foods, in great diversity (mostly plants).

If many people in the UK are failing to eat such a diet, it’s partly because these foods have been displaced by ultra-processed products. Over 50% of UK dietary energy is now UPF, and this rises to over 65% for children. UPF consumption is consistently higher in more deprived groups, while consumption of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables is consistently lower. Health outcomes such as obesity also show pronounced social gradients. Seen through this lens, action to tackle ultra-processing is a matter of social justice.


The Soil Association has been advocating for a systemic response to the challenge. We believe the crux of the UPF issue is corporate capture, and that the necessary response must involve stronger regulation, conflicts of interest addressed in science and policy, and the re-distribution of power across the food system. Ultra-processed diets are environmentally and ethically problematic, as well as harmful to human health. The UK Government should learn from Brazil and encourage plant-rich diets sourced from nature-friendly farming systems.

Tensions in the UPF debate are running high. The corporates won’t relinquish their grip on the national diet lightly: industry-linked interests are seeking to muddy the policy waters, fighting to prevent a political response, and government hands are tied by the threat of legal action. Power seeks its own perpetuation. But it’s increasingly clear that action on ultra-processing is needed and would be welcomed by the public. Ensuring a healthy and sustainable diet is available to everyone is challenging but possible. Governments must grasp the ultra-processed nettle.

Rob Percival
is Head of Food Policy at the Soil Association

Follow @Rob_Percival_ and @SoilAssociation

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.