Coffee in the Context of the Ultra Processed Food Debate

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This month Dr Ally Jaffee and Alice Benskin had the opportunity to contribute to an article written by Coffee Intelligence (available here). Here below is the full interview, exploring coffee within the context of the wider ultra processed foods debate.

1. Can you define Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)? Specific chemicals/additives?
Ultra processed foods are a group of foods, as defined by the NOVA food classification system. UPF are not clearly defined, but the term generally refers to foods which have been industrially produced and contain ingredients which would not be considered wholefoods (i.e. containing trans fats, chemical additives, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and preservatives). An example would be a fast-food burger and fries, fizzy drinks or frozen chicken nuggets or store-bought packets of biscuits and crisps.

2. What are the negative impacts of UPFs? How do they impact mental health?

Research has emerged recently demonstrating that consuming diets high in UPF is associated with chronic diseases such as obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and also poor mental health outcomes. A key reason for this is because diets high in UPF are pro-inflammatory, higher in calories and less nutrient dense that diets based around whole foods.

3. Would you say there are UPFs in coffee beverages?

Some types of coffee are more processed than others i.e filter coffee vs. instant coffee. Also there are many coffee products available commercially in supermarkets (such as iced coffee) and also many cafes, which have added syrups, sugars and other ingredients that have been processed. The UK government guidelines state that adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day, (roughly equivalent to 7 sugar cubes), children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g of free sugars a day (6 sugar cubes), and children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g of free sugars a day (5 sugar cubes). In terms of coffee, Action on Sugar discovered that 98% of the 131 hot flavoured drinks found in the big high street coffee shop chains would carry a “red” warning for excessive levels of sugar, if labelling this was legally required. One of a popular high street coffee venue’s signature Christmas drinks was shown to contain 25 teaspoons of sugar, which equates to more than three times the recommended maximum adult daily intake, whereas their extra large hot chocolate contained 15 teaspoons, which is double the daily adult maximum. Another prominent high street chain’s largest chai latte was found to contain 20 teaspoons of sugar.  As part of Action on Sugar’s investigation, more than one-third of the drinks tested were found to contain the same – or higher – levels of sugar as a can of Coca-Cola. With Christmas rapidly approaching, many high street coffee shops will be advertising Christmas versions of drinks, which are often some of the highest in sugar offered by these brands. Although there is nothing wrong with consuming these drinks in moderation and irregularly, it is important to be aware of their sugar content, and the long term implications on health – increased risk of obesity, type II diabetes and related health implications. It is also important to note that quality filter coffee, enjoyed in moderation, can be a regular part of a healthy diet due to its high antioxidant content.

4. With more young people drinking sugary coffee beverages, would you say UPF consumption might increase amongst this age group?

A paper last year highlighted that over 50% of calories are now coming from ultra processed foods in the average Brit’s diet (Madruga et al., 2022). Young people are particularly vulnerable, as recent research showed that ultra processed foods have been indicated to comprise 2/3 of calories in children and teen diets (Wang et al., 2021). Energy drinks tend to be more popular amongst teenagers than coffee, and have been associated with numerous adverse physical and mental health outcomes. Some energy drinks have been found to contain as much as 500mg of caffeine per can.

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