Pizza, nuggets and fish fingers are convenient - but they don’t have to be unhealthy. Here’s how to blend them into your family meals


I wouldn’t wish a fully UPF-free diet on any family. My daughter decided she didn’t like fish fingers or pizza a few years ago, and it is as annoying as it sounds.

Thankfully, she still loves sausages and would eat chicken nuggets every day if given the chance. But these ubiquitous easy meals, frustratingly, aren’t always as child-friendly as they appear.

Nearly all the bought versions contain some ingredients classed as a UPF – ultra-processed food. These are the kinds of foods we used to call junk food, which worrying new findings reveal can significantly affect our lifespan.

Harvard University researchers tracked the diets of 115,000 Americans, all middle-aged health professionals, for three decades, and found concerning links between a high consumption of UPF and early death.

The results, published in the British Medical Journal, show that the most harmful diets are those high in processed meat and fish products such as fish fingers, chicken nuggets and sausages, which may increase the risk of death by up to 13 per cent.

What to do? Can we avoid the worst of these products? Are they to be kept only for special occasions, rather than frequent quick meals? I wasn’t allowed to go to McDonald’s when I was growing up, and while I now see my mum’s wisdom, I don’t want to tell my own daughter that we can never eat certain foods. Do such things as healthy – or healthier – fish fingers, chicken nuggets and pizzas exist?

Label confusion

It’s easy to tell people to read a label, and a good place to start, but specialist paediatric dietitian Lucy Upton says that reading every label can be time-consuming and intimidating.

Instead, she recommends scanning labels to see how much you do or don’t recognise. “UPFs often contain ingredients you wouldn’t use in home cooking, e.g. corn syrups, hydrogenated oils, thickeners, chemicals, sweeteners, colourings, and emulsifiers that are used to enhance the look, shelf life or palatability of those foods,” she explains.

Chicken and fish

I examined the ingredients of some products that I’ve recently bought. To be honest, they don’t seem too evil. Our favourite chicken nuggets, from M&S, do contain some ingredients I wouldn’t expect to find in a home kitchen. Along with chicken, flour, rapeseed oil and salt, they contain some other wheat ingredients, yeast extract, and dried herbs and spices that you might not find in your own cupboards.

“These are free from emulsifiers and E numbers,” says specialist dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine. “But due to the addition of wheat protein, wheat starch and wheat gluten, it sadly would be classed as a UPF, as we donʼt find these ingredients in a typical kitchen.

“However the NOVA classification of UPFs was never meant as a ‘good food, bad food’ list and this product does provide protein as well as some fibre, and may be an essential source of nutrition, particularly for fussy eaters. I have two small children and would give my kids these or omega 3 fish fingers, alongside potatoes, peas, carrots and baked beans, for example.”

The Aldi nuggets (which I haven’t tried) have fewer ingredients than M&S but lists dextrose, which is a kind of sugar and considered ultra-processed. The Sainsbury’s nuggets list pea fibre. I’m feeling better about our chicken nugget habit already given they mostly contain chicken, wheat and a bit of oil and salt.

But if you’re in a takeaway and can’t read the label, the contents could be less appealing – a US analysis of nuggets from two fast-food restaurants found they contained 60 per cent fat and only 18-19 per cent protein.

Upton points out that all of the foods we worry about actually contain some useful nutrition for children. “Fish fingers are a good source of protein and key nutrients for children like iodine,” she says. “I think it’s important not to assume the label ‘ultra-processed’ means that food is unhealthy or can’t be included as part of a balanced diet. I’m also an advocate of not labelling foods as good or bad in front of children – consider a child’s long-term food relationship.”

I don’t find any supermarket fish fingers that are technically UPF-free. As with the chicken nuggets, the coating usually contains a few unusual items, such as wheat gluten and potato starch, but otherwise they seem fairly benign. I’m more interested in whether there is any information as to where the fish comes from – is it sustainably sourced? – and if the fish part of the finger is 100 per cent flesh.

Pizza party

If a pizza is made with tomato sauce and vegetables, it can contain one of our five a day, says Upton. But all pizza is not equal. Rhian Stephenson, nutritional therapist and founder of Artah Nutrition, points me towards the ingredients list of a popular pizza chain’s crust, and I give up reading halfway through, when I’ve already topped 20.

But this doesn’t mean you should give up such a delicious dish. “If you try to demonise pizza, most people will immediately respond that the Italian (Mediterranean) diet is healthy and includes regular consumption of pizza,” she says. But an Italian pizza crust would contain only water, flour, yeast, sea salt and maybe some olive oil.”

Making your own is the best way forward, and while it may feel like extra work, you can portion up and freeze homemade dough, then defrost as needed. With passata and a range of toppings including fresh vegetables and cheese, making pizzas is also a great after-school activity for children of any age. Abel & Cole does a DIY pizza box using Biona readymade bases – also available at Ocado – which are UPF-free.

Sausages and beans

Good quality sausages might be UPF-free, but an article linked to the Harvard report pointed out that some whole foods, such as red meat or minimally processed sausages, might not be considered ultra-processed, but do come with other health warnings – eating a lot of red or processed meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer, for example.

Ludlam-Raine says that M&S sell UPF-free baked beans, but she points out that even ultra-processed baked beans have other merits. Beans contain protein and fibre, for example. “These products are clearly different from UPF ice-cream, which is a HFSS food (high in fat, sugar and salt) and provides little in the way of nutrients,” she says.

“In my book How Not to Eat Ultra-Processed [out in July] I talk about the 80/20 rule with the aim of prioritising whole foods, whilst savouring and still enjoying your soul-foods. Our health is determined by what we eat the majority of the time, and in general I advise people to focus on what they should be eating more of – whole foods!.”

Breads and cereals

These two staples are hard to avoid, and sugary cereals in particular were highlighted by the Harvard study as a poor choice for longevity, but most experts don’t say you must give them up entirely. “Cereal can provide fibre and important nutrients like iron,” says Upton. “In fact, we have data that shows fortified cereals can contribute to nearly 20 per cent of children’s daily iron requirements.” Ludlam-Raine points out that while shredded wheat is UPF-free, it isn’t fortified with vitamins.

You will need to spend more if you want breads that are low or free-from UPF. Jason’s sourdough (£2 at Sainsbury’s) is a good option. Waitrose has just released a new range of Wildfarmed loaves, from £2 for the white rolls and £2.80 for a sliced loaf, that are free from palm oil, artificial preservatives and emulsifiers, and made with wheat from regenerative farming that restores soil health and biodiversity.

Don’t panic

“In my opinion it is extremely hard to eat a diet 100 per cent free from UPFs in 2024,” says Ludlam-Raine. “Especially while maintaining a social life!” She says that the data shows we don’t need to avoid UPF entirely. Making your own chicken nuggets or fish fingers, even if you prep in bulk and freeze, is definitely healthier but it undoes the point of convenience foods.

I think the issue is that most people have the 80/20 rule the wrong way around. We expect effort-free convenience food most of the time, and don’t build in time to buy and prep proper meals.