Unpacking UPFs: Your Guide to Blood Pressure Management and Nutritional Clarity – Part 1

Last reviewed:
05 Mar 2024,

Medically reviewed by:

Welcome to our double feature on the important topic that are ultra-processed foods, or UPFs.

Here, in Part 1, we will dive into what UPFs are and how they affect your body and wellbeing, as what we eat matters to our health now more than ever. In fact, food has replaced tobacco as the leading cause of early death globally. Each year, more people die in the US from illnesses caused by poor diet than were killed fighting in every war in US history combined, and Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs) are a primary contributor.

Nowadays, food is also a feat of engineering – touched by human innovation just as much as the world around us. We might marvel at our technological achievements, like dams and skyscrapers, but there’s just as much science and R&D in the food production industry. UPFs are one example of this- they’ve become staples in our diets despite mounting evidence that they’re also killing us.

Understanding and Defining UPFs

Unlike simple processed foods, UPFs are manufactured through extensive industrial processes. As a result, they’re designed to be delicious, long-lasting, and convenient, but are typically high in salt, sugar, additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats.

In the debate surrounding UPFs, a key issue is the confusion caused by the interchangeable use of the terms “processed” and “ultra-processed.” This ambiguity often leads to misconceptions, as not all processed foods are detrimental to your health. For example, foods like olive oil and tinned vegetables, which are processed, can be part of a healthy diet. The real concerns are with UPFs, which are distinct in their composition and impact on body.

The NOVA classification system differentiates UPFs and classifies foods based on the extent and type of processing they went through:

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
  3. Processed foods
  4. Ultra-processed foods.

UPFs are often crafted from highly purified ingredients and are engineered to imitate natural products, such as milk or meat. The term “synthetic” has been suggested as a more accurate descriptor for UPFs, emphasising their manufactured nature and the significant level of processing they undergo,often stripping them of nutritional value, making them considerably less healthy than their minimally processed or whole food counterparts.

UPFs are more than just heavily processed foods – they’re products of an industry that prioritises shelf life and palatability over nutritional value. These foods, ranging from fizzy drinks to processed meats, contribute to an alarming trend. In the UK, UPFs make up more than 50% of the average diet. Some definitions include almost any foodstuff that isn’t present in the ingredients cupboard of the average household kitchen. Examples include:

  • Snack foods: Things like potato chips, nachos, and other packaged snacks that are often high in salt and preservatives.
  • Processed/Reconstituted meat and fish products: Sausages, bacon, and some types of ham are frequently preserved with chemicals, high in sodium and saturated fats, while fish fingers and chicken nuggets are often heavily processed.
  • Confectionery, desserts, and bakery products: Includes candies, chocolate bars, ice cream, and ready-made cakes, but also packaged bread, pastries, and other bakery products that often contain additives and preservatives to extend their shelf life.
  • Cereals and breakfast bars: Breakfast cereals and energy/snack bars that are high in sugar and low in fibre, fall under the UPF category.
  • Instant and packaged soups: These often contain high levels of sodium and preservatives, with minimal nutritional value.
  • Frozen foods: This category includes frozen pizzas, dinners, and snacks, which are typically high in calories, sodium, and additives.
  • Sugary drinks: Fizzy drinks, but also  sweetened juices, energy drinks, and flavoured coffees and teas that are high in sugar.
  • Dairy: Some processed cheeses, flavoured yoghurt, and dairy-based desserts can be high in sugar and artificial ingredients.
  • Pre-made sauces and dressings: Many of these contain high levels of sugar, salt, and preservatives.
  • Meal replacements and supplements: Including protein shakes and diet bars, which may contain artificial flavours and sweeteners.

Understanding and clearly defining UPFs is crucial in addressing the health risks associated with their consumption, but also in avoiding public confusion and ensuring informed dietary choices.

In light of this, Dr Chris van Tulleken is on a mission to help people understand the dangers of UPF-heavy diets and their major impacts on overall health. In 2021, he challenged himself to eat a diet made up of mostly UPFs for a month. The results were mouth-watering and eye-opening. Mouth-watering because of the addictive behaviours linked to the engineering that has gone into making sure that UPFs tickle our taste buds. And eye-opening given how omnipresent UPFs have become despite the evidence of their negative health impacts.

Join our community of hypertension fighters and stay informed with expert insights, tips and the latest updates on managing your blood pressure – Sign up for our newsletter now!

How UPFs Link to Blood Pressure and Health

UPFs are closely linked to increased blood pressure (or hypertension), a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease and chronic conditions, including heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, aortic aneurysms, kidney disease, and vascular dementia. The high levels of unhealthy ingredients in these foods contribute to hypertension and other conditions, as highlighted by two recent studies on the significant health risks associated with UPFs.

The first study at the University of Sydney followed 10,000 women over 15 years, finding that those who consumed the highest proportion of UPFs had a 39% greater likelihood of developing high blood pressure compared to those with the lowest UPF intake. This relationship persisted even after accounting for the levels of salt, sugar, and fat in their diet. The second study carried out in China involved over 325,000 men and women. It revealed that individuals with the highest consumption of ultra processed foods were 24% more likely to experience cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, strokes, and angina. The study also found that every 10% increase in daily calorie intake from UPFs correlated with a 6% increased risk of heart disease. Those whose diet included less than 15% UPF were at the lowest risk of heart problems.

Busting Myths Around UPFs

These studies, presented at the 2023 European Society of Cardiology’s annual meeting, underscore the urgent need for action against the rising consumption of UPFs. The research also sheds light on the misconception that certain foods perceived as healthy, like shop-bought sandwiches, wraps, soups, and low-fat yoghurt, are in fact UPFs.

Nutritional myths, especially those targeting the over 50s, often lead to misinformation about UPFs. A prevalent one is that ‘diet’ or ‘low-calorie’ options are healthier, which is not always the case. These foods can still be high in other harmful ingredients, misleading consumers about their dietary choices. And all these false assumptions could contribute to the development of high blood pressure, which is known to be a silent killer.

The researchers also suggest that the harm caused by UPFs may extend beyond their high fat, sugar, and salt content, indicating the need for further research into the full scope of health risks they pose. The high prevalence of UPFs in diets and the  yet to be researched risks create significant concerns for future public health and the potential burden on healthcare systems.

But all hope is not lost, as you will see in Part 2 of this feature. In there, we will talk about the power of prevention and how UPFs are being fought against at higher levels. We’ll also discuss simple changes to your lifestyle and how Aktiia can help you stick to them. So make sure to find us in Part 2 of Unpacking UPFs.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is for educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice. If you have any health concerns, please consult with your physician or qualified healthcare provider. Any changes to your diet or lifestyle should be made under medical supervision. The author and publisher are not responsible for any adverse effects resulting from the use or application of the information presented in this article.


Processed foods are making us sick, 1 Mar 2023 – https://harvardpublichealth.org/nutrition-processed-foods-make-us-sick-its-time-for-government-action

A critical perspective in food science, Oct 2021 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science-article-S0924224421004970

Addiction to ultra-processed food affects 14% of adults globally, 10 Oct 2023 – https://www.theguardian.com/science-addiction-to-ultra-processed-food-affects-14-of-adults-global-study-shows

What happened when I ate ultra-processed food for a month, 28 Aug 2023 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/food-articles-van-tulleken

Ultra-processed food raises risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, 28 Aug 2023 – https://www.bhf.org.uk/news-from-the-bhf-ultra-processed-foods-linked-to-cardiovascular-risk

Medically Reviewed

dr jay shah photo

Renowned cardiologist, physician leader, and angel investor.

Read next

Traditional blood pressure cuff vs. Aktiia


Meets ISO81060-2 Standard
Day-Time Blood Pressure
Average 70+
measurements a week
Night-Time Blood Pressure
Automatic Measurements

About the Author

Piotr Kudela, aspiring writer and website editor, with keen interest in health technology, backed by strong academic foundation and professional experience in search marketing. In his writings, Piotr combines insights from blood pressure research with his fascination for health wearables, driven by a passion for contributing to scientific progress and improving global health through technology.

Try Aktiia for yourself

Gain access to these benefits with the Aktiia solution.

Shop Now

Stay updated

Join our mailing list for the latest developments.

Your Basket
Your basket is emptyReturn to Shop
Calculate Shipping