How artificial is your food?

Meyken Houppermans
Founder and Head Coach
Some food products contain the same artificial or chemical substances you can find at the hardware store. Food labels can be misleading and products are subject to health washing. Ultra-processed foods are not modified foods but formulations of industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients. They contain little to no intact food, and are a severe health threat.

Misleading food labels

European legislation prohibits misleading food packaging. In deciding whether a food label is misleading, courts must assume a normally informed and reasonably prudent and observant average consumer. Despite a correct and complete list of ingredients, a food package can still be misleading for example due to health washing of the product. [1]

Health washing

Health washing is the strategy of presenting genuinely unhealthy products in a misleading context of fitness, sports or other activities related to a healthy lifestyle. The goal of healthwashing is an image transfer that leads to the association of unhealthy products with health and energy rather than with the potential negative health effects of products high in sugar, salt and fat. [2]

Research has shown many consumers do not have the knowledge or capacity to understand the information on a food label. The appearance of packaging plays an important role in purchasing behavior, more so in people who are naturally less likely to gather information. Also, choice overload plays a role. Consumers are less likely to consult the ingredient list when the number of product choices is large, for example ten options of stawberry yoghurt at the supermarket. They will base their choice less on written information and more on intuition. Furthermore, is seems that consumers who want to buy a healthy product are more likely to look at the ingredient list than consumers who want to buy a tasty product [3]

Food processing

The NOVA system of food classification is a worldwide recognised framework, used in public policy and research to understand the nature, extent and purpose of industrial food processing and the health implications of different food products. Food processing as identified by NOVA involves physical, biological and chemical processes used after foods are separated from nature, and before being consumed or prepared as dishes and meals.[4]

NOVA identifies four groups [5]

Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants or animals, or products directly from nature such as fungi. Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum-packaging. These processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage, or to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume.

Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, are substances derived from group 1 or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying. The purpose of such processes is to make durable products that are suitable for use in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook the group 1 foods. They are not meant to be consumed by themselves, and are normally used in combination with group 1 foods.

Group 3. Processed foods

Processed foods, such as bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads, are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from group 2 to group 1 foods. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and non-alcoholic fermentation. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients, and are recognizable as modified versions of group 1 foods. They are edible by themselves or in combination with other foods. The purpose of processing  is to increase the durability of group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.

Group 4. Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact group 1 food. Ingredients of these formulations usually include those also used in processed foods, such as sugars, oils, fats or salt. But ultra-processed products also include other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations. Some of these are directly extracted from foods, such as casein, lactose, whey and gluten. Many are derived from further processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

Additives in ultra-processed foods include some also used in processed foods, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers. Classes of additives found only in ultra-processed products include those used to imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects of the final product. These additives include dyes and other colours, colour stabilizers; flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners; and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants. A multitude of sequences of processes is used to combine the usually many ingredients and to create the final ultra-processed product. The processes include several with no domestic equivalents, such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation, extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying.

The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create branded, convenient (durable, ready to consume), attractive (hyper-palatable) and highly profitable (low-cost ingredients) food products designed to displace all other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are usually packaged attractively and marketed intensively. [6]

Health threats of ulta- processed foods

Ultra-processed products are not modified foods but formulations of industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients, particularly unhealthy types of fat, starches, free sugars and salt, plus additives. They contain little or even no intact food. The ingredients of ultra-processed products make them fatty, sugary or salty, often high in saturated fats or trans-fats, and depleted in dietary fibre and various micronutrients.

Higher consumption of ultra- processed products is associated with several diet-related non-communicable diseases such as obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

Ultra processed products are calorie dense and they have high glycaemic loads. This makes them liable to disturb and even derange endogenous processes in the nervous system that signal satiety and control appetite, and thus increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Furthermore, many of these products are easy to consume, such as soft drinks, and are therefor overconsumed easily. Many ultra-processed products create a false impression of being healthy by, for example, the addition of dietary fibre, protein, and some micronutrients and the replacement of sugar by artificial sweeteners, or the reduction of sodium, enabling manufacturers to make health claims despite the product remaining unhealthy.

Ultra-processed products are often formulated to be habit-forming, and are sometimes even quasi-addictive, which makes it hard to make healthy choices and to avoid overconsumption.[7]

Clues on your food label

When food is ultra-processed, it is produced with industrial-scale methods and often for the consumer unrecognisable ingredients.

Products to be alert on:

- Energy drinks and high proteïn bars

- Dairy with added fruit or a flavor

- Light or diet products with less sugar or low fat

- Vitamin water and sports drinks

- Cereals like cornflakes, cruesli or granola

These products are often nutritionally void and packed with sugar, unhealthy oils, chemicals to extend the expiration date, artificial sweeteners and substances for better color, taste and smell. The products will probably make you snack even more and do not add to your daily intake of healthy nutrition.

Besides the health impact mentioned above, these type of products can also cause vague symptoms such as headache, fatigue, gastro- intestinal issues, brain fogs and even feelings of depression.

Clues on your food to be aware of:

- Hydrogenated or interesterified oils

- Hydrolysed proteins or - soya protein isolate

- Maltodextrin, invert sugar or high-fructose corn syrup

- Colour stabilizers

- Flavours, flavour enhancers or - non-sugar sweeteners

- Carbonating

- Firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents

- Emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants

- Hydrogenation and hydrolysation

- Extrusion and moulding [8]


Reading the food label can help to get better insight into the foods you eat and to make healthier choices. Although food labels can be confusing or hard to understand, foods that contain more than five ingredients might nit always be the healthiest option. Home cooking your meals and using products that are recognisable, such as a fresh tomato, is the way to go.

Create your own health!©


[1] Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. Blog recht en samenleving. De ingredientenlijst op verpakkingen: voorkomt die misleiding? Maart 2023.

[2] Oxford Academy. Health promotion international. Healthwashing in high-sugar food advertising: the effect of prior information on healthwashing perceptions in Austria. Retrieved from August 2021.

[3] Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. Blog recht en samenleving. De ingredientenlijst op verpakkingen: voorkomt die misleiding? Maart 2023.

[4] Monteiro, Carlos Augusto; Cannon, Geoffrey; Lawrence, Mark; da Costa Louzada, Maria Laura; Machado, Priscila Pereira (2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[5] Cambridge University Press. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2017

[6]. [7] Idem.

[8] Cambridge University Press. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2017.; What is ultra- processed food.