Award-winning nutritionist ROB HOBSON shares how to make your own fast food with nothing ultra processed (… even pot noodles and energy bars!)

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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It’s the essential new series everyone’s talking about. In yesterday’s Daily Mail, award-winning nutritionist Rob Hobson lifted the lid on how we’re being exposed to dangerous ultra-processed foods without even knowing it. 

Today, in the second helping of our must-read five-part series, he shares his tips and tricks for whipping up tasty, nutritious convenience food in minutes – without any of the chemical nasties. 

One of the main reasons we succumb to ultra-processed food is convenience.

It’s all too easy to be tempted by snack foods and quick-fix ready-meals when we are eating on the hop.

But while a lunch of instant soup or a shop-bought sandwich might save time, did you know your intake of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) could be depleting your body of vital nutrients, promoting weight gain, encouraging poor digestion and playing havoc with your microbiome and blood sugar levels?

Award-winning nutritionist Rob Hobson is lifting the lid on how we are being exposed to dangerous ultra-processed foods, and how we can live without them  

It's all too easy to be tempted by snack foods and quick-fix ready-meals when we are eating on the hop, but ultra-processed foods could be depleting your body of vital nutrients

It’s all too easy to be tempted by snack foods and quick-fix ready-meals when we are eating on the hop, but ultra-processed foods could be depleting your body of vital nutrients

Your health-risk drops with every single portion of ultra-processed foods you manage to remove from your daily diet

Your health-risk drops with every single portion of ultra-processed foods you manage to remove from your daily diet 

In yesterday’s Daily Mail, I explained how damaging UPFs can be for your health. Studies show too many in your diet raise your risk of heart disease, mental health problems and gut issues as well as being linked to dementia and certain cancers. Worryingly, too, just four servings a day (that’s a bowl of cereal, a sliced bread sandwich, a fizzy drink and a chocolate bar) could put you at 62 per cent greater risk of premature death.

Pantry must-haves to keep you on the straight and narrow

Honey

  • I have used minimal sugar in my recipes and, where needed, I’ve prefer honey instead because it is minimally processed (unlike sugar).

Legumes

  • Fill your store cupboard with dried and canned beans, lentils and peas of all types. Most dried legumes (except lentils and mung beans) should be soaked overnight to improve their digestibility and cooked according to packet instructions. Alternatively, you can use canned legumes (which are classified as minimally processed). Dried lentils, peas and beans double in size once they have been soaked and cooked so you’ll need to soak and cook around 100g of dried legumes to be equivalent to a 400g can (which usually contains 240g of soaked and cooked legumes when drained).

Wholegrains

  • Keep bags of short-grain brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal couscous, pearl barley, oats and quinoa (which is a seed or a pseudo-grain). Wholegrains like these are unprocessed which means they retain their fibre-rich outer layer.

Nuts and seeds

  • These offer a good source of protein, omega-3 and nutrients such as magnesium, iron and B vitamins and are valuable ingredients to make healthy, unprocessed snack foods and salad toppers. Use raw, unsalted varieties, which you can toast for more flavour. To save on cost, buy in bulk online or seek out multipack offers from your local health food store.

Oils

  • I recommend using extra virgin olive oil as it is the purest of unrefined oils and suitable for most home cooking. Vegetable oils crushed from seeds and nuts are also good but avoid refined oils which are usually processed using chemicals that remove nutrients, enzymes and other compounds to make them more tolerant to higher heat.

Flours

  • Wholegrain flours are ground from whole, unprocessed wheat kernels, grains and seeds so I recommend using wholemeal and spelt flour when possible. White flour is heavily processed because the wheatgerm and bran are removed before milling.

Canned and frozen vegetables

  • These are both time – and cost – savers, falling into the unprocessed or minimally processed food category. Keep peas, sweetcorn and mixed vegetables (with no added salt or sugar) in your store cupboard with canned tomatoes and tomato puree.

Herbs and spices

  • Stock up on minimally processed butter, salt, dried herbs and spices, (ground cumin and coriander, oregano, mixed herbs, smoked paprika, curry powder and dried chillies), miso, tamari sauce and vinegar.

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But the good news is your health-risk drops with every single portion of UPF you manage to remove from your daily diet which is why, as an award-winning nutritionist, I’m on a mission not just to urge you to cut down on the ultra-processed food you consume, but to show you how quick and easy it is to cook your own alternatives to all those off-the-shelf family favourites we’ve come to rely on – from fish cakes to tortilla wraps – without a single artificial additive.

After months of experimenting in my own kitchen, I have gathered my recipes together in my new book, Unprocess Your Life, which is being serialised exclusively in Mail Newspapers.

In today’s You magazine there are a selection of my speedy suppers, nutritious snacks and healthy puddings – all of which can be whipped up quickly.

Better still – and key to my revolutionary eating plan – many of these meals can be batch-cooked in bulk so you can chill or freeze individual portions for when you need them. Batch-cooking enables you to create your own convenience foods and it’s more cost-effective.

With a fully-stocked fridge and freezer, you’ll always have something healthy to eat when you don’t feel like cooking and this should reduce the temptation to reach for the ultra-processed ready meals and snacks that are so bad for your health.

You can pop a nourishing meal in the microwave at the end of a busy day, and enjoy good, nutritious home-cooked food – UPF-free – in the time it would take you to open a can or warm up a ready meal.

The key to success is planning, so I urge you to sit down today, pull out your diary and plan the meals and snacks for the week ahead.

Is this the kind of week when you’ll need quick meals? Would it be helpful to batch-cook some protein energy bars to take to work each day or eat after your early morning workout sessions if you know grabbing breakfast immediately afterwards will be a struggle? Why not spend an afternoon replicating the most frequently used ultra-processed staples in your store cupboard, such as sauces, biscuits and breads?

I always have a batch of wholemeal tortillas in my freezer (they couldn’t be easier to make!) and a jar of red pepper sauce in the fridge, so I can easily whip up a tortilla pizza for lunch in five minutes, adding peppers, sweetcorn, tinned pineapple or frozen spinach to create a different topping combination each time.

To build up a supply of main courses ready to reheat, many recipes in yesterday’s Weekend Magazine and today’s You magazine can be cooked ahead and chilled or frozen.

Start by experimenting with some of my unprocessed versions of ultra-processed favourites, including homemade chicken Kyivs, melt-in-the-middle fishcakes and additive-free pot noodles. I also make sure I have a regular supply of frozen chicken tikka masala and Middle Eastern aubergine and lentil stew, ready to defrost and reheat – all recipes that I’ll share over the next few days.

Another useful hack is to experiment with different ways of serving the same dish – which is great if you are stuck for freezer space.

For example, a simple bolognese can be served one day with pasta, the next with rice, wrapped in a homemade flour tortilla with salad or piled on to a jacket potato.

You’ll soon become proficient at cooking double quantities when you have extra time so that you can keep a varied stock of nutritious, homemade ready meals in the fridge or freezer.

As you reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods, your palate changes and you become less reliant on salt and sugar.

This increases your enjoyment of flavours found naturally in fresh foods and you can enhance this by experimenting with spices and fresh herbs.

If you have herbs left over, a clever tip is to half-fill an ice-cube tray with water, then add chopped herbs to each cube and push it in as much as possible.

Once the cube is frozen, top the tray with more water, freeze again and then transfer the cubes to labelled, sealable containers (one for each different herb).

When cooking, just drop a few cubes into your pan.

I also make batches of homemade pecan and coconut granola (the recipe was in yesterday’s Weekend magazine).

Not only is this an excellent alternative to shop-bought cereal, it’s perfect to nibble on when I get hungry, running between meetings – no ultra-processed chocolate biscuits required!

On my journey to living a less processed life, I have been asked many questions by friends and family. This section aims to answer some of those questions and ease any confusion.

Rob Hobson recommends using extra virgin olive oil as it is the purest of unrefined oils and suitable for most home cooking

Rob Hobson recommends using extra virgin olive oil as it is the purest of unrefined oils and suitable for most home cooking

Hobson suggests sticking to honey (or maple syrup) and avoiding cane sugar, industrialised sweeteners and artificial sweeteners

Hobson suggests sticking to honey (or maple syrup) and avoiding cane sugar, industrialised sweeteners and artificial sweeteners

Can I still enjoy a drink (or two)?

Alcoholic drinks can vary widely in their processing. Most wines (including champagne), beers and ciders are considered minimally processed, although you should avoid sugary fruit-flavoured versions, which verge on UPF. Spirits, such as vodka, gin and whisky are technically ultra-processed because they have to undergo a process of distillation after fermentation, which includes various additives, and some whiskies have food colouring added. Mixers such as tonic, lemonade and cola definitely fall into the UPF category whether full sugar or sugar-free.

Rob’s First Top Tip 

Invest in containers to be used in the microwave to reheat meals from frozen. Glass bottles are good to store ketchup, while Mason or Kilner jars are useful for mayo. Once you’ve portioned up food, label containers with the dish name and date it was prepared. 

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Do I have to avoid all UPFs all the time?

No. I recommend reducing your intake bit-by-bit over time. Your health risks are reduced, the fewer UPFs you eat each day, but please don’t stress over the occasional cocktail or pizza with friends. (When I’m tempted by UPFs, I call on my 10 Per Cent Rule – it’s OK as long as UPFs form no more than 10 per cent of my daily food consumption.)

Are canned foods UPF?

Check the labels – you might find baked beans, spaghetti hoops, tinned soups and stews include a long list of chemical ingredients which puts them in the UPF category. But legumes, fish, fruit and vegetables canned in water or natural juices are healthy processed foods to be enjoyed.

Is it costlier to live an unprocessed life?

Cooking from scratch might be more expensive than buying cheap ready meals and poor-quality packaged food, but you can keep a tight control over costs by choosing seasonal vegetables or frozen alternatives (including fish and seafood). I often go to my local market stalls at the end of the day to buy bags of tomatoes that are over-ripe and sold at a fraction of the cost with which to make my tomato ketchup. I also snap up ripe avocados to make guacamole (you can also freeze chopped up avocado, which is very useful if you have bought a mound of them from the market cheaply). You can boost the fibre content and slash the cost of meat dishes if you replace half with beans, pulses and lentils.

Can you still eat sugar?

It’s wise to try to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, for many health reasons, not least because the white stuff counts as a UPF. I suggest sticking to honey (or maple syrup if you’re vegan) and avoiding cane sugar, industrialised sweeteners and artificial sweeteners, which are thought to interfere with the healthy working of the gut microbiome. Sugar is quite addictive and it can be tough to go cold turkey. Cutting back on the sweet stuff gradually allows your taste buds to adapt.

Rob’s Second Top Tip

Teach yourself to slow down and eat mindfully. Savouring the smells and flavours of a home-cooked meal pro- motes a better relation- ship with food and will make you less likely to reach for tasteless ultra-processed options

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How about dining out?

Eating out can be challenging but not all food that is produced out of the home is ultra-processed. You’ll find healthy options such as salads and grain-based dishes in many high-street food outlets. Just be alert to the risk of ultra-processed ingredients in salad dressings, marinades and spice mixes. Ask if the sauces are freshly prepared, and if in doubt request the dressing or sauce to be served on the side. Avoid processed meats such as sausages and burgers (unless it’s a homemade burger made from simply ground beef). But if you only eat out about once a month, don’t obsess about it.

Are white carbs ok?

I tend to prefer to use wholemeal and wholegrain varieties of foods simply because they are less processed and have added health benefits from their fibre and mineral content. But it is fine to switch to white pasta, couscous and rice if that makes meals more palatable – these are still minimally processed foods with health benefits of their own.

Should I be buying organic food?

It’s a good idea to aim to buy the best quality food you can afford. Organic food has benefits (it should mean you are consuming fewer chemicals), but it is certainly not a key requirement of reducing the number of processed foods in your life. In fact, there are plenty of UPFs with organic labelling, so don’t let this fool you when deciding what to eat.

Recipe for high protein energy bars

Energy and protein bars have become big business but the formulations are far from natural. Ironically, as a rule of thumb, if a snack food has several health claims, it will likely be ultra-processed. They generally use a sweetener as ‘low sugar’, various protein powders, bovine collagen for chewiness and something to add fibre, like polydextrose, made in a lab and not digested in the body. This homemade version is additive-free and will still give you 12g of protein per bar and a host of other vital nutrients.

Makes 8

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cans of chickpeas, drained
  • 10 soft dates, pitted
  • 4 tbsp honey
  • 8 tbsp crunchy peanut or almond butter
  • 75g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 150g mixed seeds
  • 100ml milk or unprocessed oat or coconut milk

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/Gas 4. Line a 20cm square cake tin with parchment paper.

Tip the chickpeas into a food processor, add the dates, honey and nut butter and blitz into a smooth paste. Add remaining ingredients and blitz again until smooth.

Transfer the mixture to the cake tin then spread out and smooth with a spatula.

Place the tin in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the mixture comes out clean.

Leave to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then tip onto a board. Cut into eight pieces.

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  • Unprocess Your Life by Rob Hobson (HarperCollins Publishers, £18.99). To order a copy for £17.09 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25. Promotional price is valid until 21/01/2024.

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