What makes ultra-processed foods so bad for your health?

Not too much has changed in the process food industry. Baloney, salami, hot dogs, sweet rolls, etc. are still the same. Process foods consists of any “raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged or anything done to them altering their natural state.”

It also includes adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats.

Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. Also included are additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

A quick example of the differences as they read mostly alike. A pizza from scratch contains minimally processed food (wheat turned into flour, tomatoes into sauce, milk into cheese). The pizza in the freezer, with its thiamine mononitrate and sodium phosphate, is Ultra Process Food (UPF).

Ultra-processed foods are the main source (nearly 58%) of calories eaten in the US. They contribute ~90% of the energy we get from added sugars.

The above is a brief introduction to the differences between process foods and ultra-process foods. The article I pulled from the Economist does a deeper dive into UPFs and the dangers. Keep in mind, there is less spoilage with processed foods and it is less costly to bring them to market. Ultra-Processed foods have a longer shelf-life than natural foods. There is a cost motive to this too.

What makes ultra-processed foods so bad for your health? economist.com

Food shopping is becoming a dangerous pursuit. For example, nutritional issues are lurking on every shelf.

  • Ready-meals are packed with salt and preservatives,
  • Breakfast cereals are sweeter than chocolate bars, and
  • Processed meats are packed with nitrite-preservatives, which can form harmful compounds when cooked.

A new term is catching on to describe these nutritional bad guys: ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

In his new book, doctor and television presenter, “Ultra-Processed People”, Chris van Tulleken, argues that UPFs dominate the food supply in rich countries. They are also creeping into diets in low-and middle-income countries. As they proliferate so do the concerns about their effects on human health.

Just how bad are UPFs, and what do they do to us?

The concept of UPFs was devised by Carlos Monteiro, a Brazilian scientist. In 2009. His team of nutritionists observed the people in Brazil were buying less sugar and oil> However the rates of  obesity and type-2 diabetes were rising. It was due to their eating more sugar, fats and additives in packaged snacks and pre-made meals. In response, Mr. Monteiro proposed a food classification system to take into account the degree of processing involved in the food supply.

The processing of healthy foods can make them unhealthy. Fruit for instance goes from healthy to unhealthy as it is desiccated, squeezed or sweetened. Mr. Monteiro’s system, Nova, puts foods into four “buckets”: unprocessed and minimally processed foods; processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods. This allows more fine-grained distinction between different degrees of processing. Thus staples such as rice, oil or flour, which all require minimal processing for consumption, do not belong in the same category as a Twinkie.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) often go through many sophisticated industrial processes. Those processes do not make them all unhealthy by default. For example, a soya-based meat substitute can be part of a balanced meal. However, the frequent consumption of UPFs causes a constellation of issues. Most contain a blend of artificial ingredients, plenty of salt and sugar, and few nutrients. Arguably, some UPFs are more akin to industrial products than food.

By dialing up their flavours and palatability, UPFs are engineered to be easier to eat in large amounts than whole foods (try leaving crisps at the bottom of the packet). The extent of the problem was revealed in 2019 by researchers at the National Institutes of Health in America. The project sequestered volunteers and offered two groups as much food as they wanted. Over a fortnight those on an ultra-processed diet ate some 500 more calories each day, roughly equivalent to a McDonald’s Big Mac. The lead them to gain weight.

Those on the unprocessed diet ate less and slimmed down.

Eating UPFs have been linked to poor health more broadly. One study in 2019 found an association between intake of UPFs and overall risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases affecting the brain, causing strokes. Another recent study showed eating fewer UPFs was linked with lower risk of a number of cancers. A UPF-heavy diet also seems to affect the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that contribute to health in a range of ways. These sorts of association studies cannot prove causality. Randomized-controlled trials would be ideal, but more ambitious tests may not be ethically possible given the suspected deleterious effect of these kinds of diets. That said, there is plenty of evidence linking many ingredients in UPFs, such as sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, to negative health outcome.

Yet UPFs are cheap, tasty and abundant, and for those on a tight budget or on specific diets, such as vegan, there are often few available alternatives. It is possible to eat well by selecting the right upfs, such as whole-grain cereals, which are often fortified.

Government scientists at the American government’s Agricultural Research Service showed it was possible to build a healthy diet with 91% of calories from selected upfs. But Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, criticized the study, saying the researchers had a conflict of interest through their links to the food industry. It is best to stay vigilant in those treacherous supermarket aisles and read the labels. 

Confronting the dangers of ultra-processed food, economist.com