What has happened to “real” food? Many traditional foods used in cooking today are processed in some way, such as grains, cheeses, dried fish, and fermented vegetables. It has been said that almost all foods undergo some form of processing; they are usually referred to as minimally processed. The processing itself is not the problem, only much more recently has a different type of food processing emerged: one that is more extensive and uses new chemical and physical techniques. This is called ultra-processing and the resulting products, ultra-processed foods are everywhere.
To make these foods, cheap ingredients such as starches, vegetable oils, sugars, salt and trans fats are combined with certain additives such as colors, flavors and emulsifiers. A previous post has addressed the possible problems associated with emulsifiers in our food supply. You can find this article by searching this blog for: Food Additives and the Metabolic Syndrome. Certain food additives can disrupt our gut bacteria and trigger inflammation, while plasticizers in packaging can interfere with our hormonal system. Examples of ultra-processed foods include but not limited to as sugary drinks, confectionery, mass produced bread, snack foods, sweetened dairy products, and frozen desserts. Foods that come in a box or bag are often suspect.
Unfortunately, these foods are terrible for our health. And we are eating more of them than ever before, partially because of aggressive marketing and lobbying by big food. More ultra-processed foods in the diet associates with higher risks of obesity, heart disease, and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression, and death. Ironically, these diseases have become some of the leading causes of death in the world. Certain features of ultra processed foods also promote over consumption. Product flavors , aromas, and mouthfeel are designed to make these foods ultra tasty, and perhaps even addictive.
Ultra processed foods can also harm the environment. For example food packaging generates much of the plastic waste that enters marine ecosystems. (see the example below).
Sales of ultra processed foods are highest in rich countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada. However they are rising rapidly in middle income countries such as China, South Africa, and Brazil, which are highly populated. Supermarkets are now spreading throughout the developing world, provisioning ultra processed foods at scale and at low prices. Where supermarkets don’t exist other distribution strategies are used for example, Nestle uses its door to door sales force to reach thousands of poor households in Brazil’s urban slums.
How can things change? The evidence that ultra processed foods are harming our health and the planet is clear. We must now consider using a variety of strategies to decrease consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations, for example by using taxation, marketing restrictions and removing these products from schools.
According to the authors of this article, simply telling individuals to be more responsible is unlikely to work when big food spends billions every year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility. Should dietary guidelines now strongly advise people to avoid ultra processed foods? Brazil and other Latin American countries are already doing this.
Will the new dietary guidelines for 2020 due to be published in the next few months, include the advice of limiting ultra-processed foods in our diets? It is doubtful since as in the past, adherence to the dietary guidelines has been low and also because the dietary guidelines alone in the United States unfortunately is highly associated with the food industry. This includes lobbying policymakers, making political donations, funding favorable research, and partnerships with community organizations.
This post includes excerpts from an original article first published by The Conversation. It has also been published titled “The Rise of Ultra-Processed Foods” by Phillip Baker, Mark Lawrence, and Priscila Machado in The Epoch Times, Wednesday, September 23, 2020.
BOTTOM LINE: Try to avoid or at least cut down on using processed foods, especially snacks (which can be addictive). Read the serving size and stick to it –and please not the whole bag – practice mindfulness and be aware.
Philip Baker is a research fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University in Australia.
Mark Lawrence is professor of public health nutrition at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, and Priscilla Machado is a research fellow at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science in the Faculty of Health at Deakin University.