The ugly truth about ultra-processed food
Ultra-processed food is food transformed from its natural state.
The food industry adds trans fats, thickeners, coloring, chemical additives, and taste enhancers to food. The aim is to produce food and drink with a long shelf life and tastes that appeal to a wide public - often younger consumers. The problem is that this process robs food of its nutrients and us of our health.
And so this becomes an issue of public health.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savorin
Epicure (1755 - 1826)
The United Nations UN and the World Health Organisation WHO have declared 2016 - 2026 the Decade of Nutrition. They are sponsoring programs and educating the worldwide population about nutrition. The main aim is to end malnutrition and to help us make better choices. According to a study published in Nutrients, there is a link between eating ultra-processed foods on a regular basis and diet-related non-communicable chronic diseases. Although research has not yet been able to determine what processing of what foods is most harmful.
Another initiative in favor of global nutrition is from a research group from the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil that has developed the Nova food classification. Nova is unique because it classifies foods according to their degrees of transformation and not nutrient value:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed
2. Processed culinary ingredients
3. Processed foods
4. Ultra-processed foods (& drink)
What does the NOVA classification say about this last category?
They (ultra-processed foods) are formulated from industrial ingredients and contain little or no intact foods.
By their nature they are unhealthy, and should be grouped together and avoided.
The health issue
The main concern with ultra-processed foods is that they are changing what we eat. Both lower and higher-income populations are consuming an increasing amount of these foods.
A commentary published in Public Health Nutrition states:
The result is diets with excessive energy density, high in free sugars and unhealthy fats and salt, and low in dietary fiber that increase the risk of obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases.
Both this commentary and that of the Nova classification above make a clear point. Ultra-processed foods are taking the place of whole foods, and have a negative impact on our health.
Ultra-processed foods are changing cultures
Let's be clear - ultra-processed foods are changing how we eat.
By making food easy and ready to eat and heat - we need less time to eat and little to no time to prepare food. Nowadays, no one has time to waste. How many of us have had a "quick lunch" in front of our computer? Of course, this causes us to snack more during the afternoon. Have you ever eaten standing?
Research published in the British Medical Journal states that a study conducted by a group of researchers in Japan on Japanese students suggests that eating quickly and until full could lead to being overweight.
How about the evening meal? For dinner, there is a temptation to resort to "ready made" meals such as frozen, processed preparations or pizzas ready to pop into the oven. We sometimes will dine at different times or in front of the TV. We "eat out" much more than in the past.
These practices of quick-and-ready eating lead us away from traditional foods and dishes. Food that we once shared with family. It has become common practice in some homes to have meals at different times. This results in reduced contact and communication with loved ones. Our grandparents used mealtimes to talk about what happened during the day. The dinner table was the place where each family member could vent problems, share opinions, or ask for advice. Children learned family values.
While we can't blame these foods for our lifestyle choices, ultra-transformed foods don't contribute to preserving cultural practices.
Sustainability - and food packaging?
And what about attractive, colorful packaging used for ultra-processed foods?
These food items are eaten rapidly. Even if some of this packaging is biodegradable - how long will it take to degrade? Years, most of the time.
These are the questions that we should be asking industry: What is the carbon footprint of this packaging? How much energy is required to produce it? How much does it contribute to waste?
The global environmental crisis makes us aware of the dangers we are facing and will face in the future because of waste and pollution.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals state:
While substantial environmental impacts occur from food in the production phase (agriculture, food processing), households influence these impacts through their dietary choices and habits. This consequently affects the environment through food related energy consumption and waste generation.
So what is the takeaway from all of this?
1. Our choices carry consequences
2. Ultra-processed foods harm our health and that of the environment
3. We as consumers have the power to change it all
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not medical advice. If you are suffering from a health issue you should consult your health care provider before undertaking any form of treatment.