Ultra-Processed Foods

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This recent Scientific American article educates its readers what ulta-processed food is and how it could take a toll on our health.

“Both frozen chopped spinach and canned sausages are processed, but the latter has undergone much more processing than the former. Ultraprocessed foods undergo an industrial process to move from farm to table. This often includes steps such as hydrogenation, which produces semisolid oils, and hydrolysis, which enhances flavors. These foods also have a variety of additives that help bind the ingredients together, increase their shelf life or make them more palatable.”

A whole lot of things that you could never imagine can be done [to food]. You can’t tell simply by the ingredients. It’ll be flour, but you really don’t know that wheat flour has been decomposed in such complex ways and then put back together.

– Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

According to a 2019 study, there is a direct link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and weight gain. Similar other research have demonstrated association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and health conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and even mild depression and anxiety.

Filippa Juul, a nutritional epidemiologist at the New York University School of Global Public Health, says “[ultra-processed] foods essentially have artificially enhanced palatability that exceeds the palatability any ingredient could produce on its own—in other words, they have a combination of fat, salt or sugar that would never exist in nature.”

Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology and a nutritionist at the University of Michigan, says that certain foods are addictive. “People don’t lose control over eating bananas, but with ultraprocessed foods, they show all the hallmarks of addiction”.

That makes sense because the reward system of the brain was really shaped by the need to get calories. The addictive agent in food could be one of many things —taste, smell, sugar, fat and additives are all potential culprits.

– Ashley Gearhardt

There is still an ongoing debate about whether ultra-processed foods should be regulated. Gearhardt suggests “We have to do our best to make healthy choices, but everything is stacked against us. As a food scientist herself, she leaves the grocery store befuddled. It’s easy to say we should just tell the individual to do better while everything in the environment is set up for the industry to profit”. She adds “In an ideal world, we would focus on making healthy alternatives convenient and affordable and reducing marketing to kids. We need to take some courageous action and have some common sense that this food environment is not good for anybody.”