What are ultra-processed foods and why are they so bad for you?


Is your diet ultra-processed?

In many households, ultra-processed foods are the mainstay of the kitchen table. They include items you might not even consider junk food, such as cereals, muffins, snack bars, and sweetened yogurt. Soft drinks and energy drinks also count.

These foods represent an increasing proportion of the world’s food. Nearly 60 percent of the calories that adults eat in America come from ultra-processed foods. They account for 25 to 50 percent of the calories consumed in many other countries, including England, Canada, France, Lebanon, Japan and Brazil.

Every year, food companies introduce thousands of new ultra-processed foods with an endless variety of flavors and ingredients. These products deliver potent combinations of fat, sugar, sodium and artificial flavors. They’re what scientists call hyper-tasty: irresistible, easy to overeat, and capable of hijacking the brain’s reward system and triggering powerful cravings.

But in dozens of large studies, scientists have found that ultra-processed foods are linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. A recent study of more than 22,000 people found that people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had a 19 percent higher chance of dying early and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to people who ate few ultra-processed foods.

So how do we break our reliance on ultra-processed foods? You can start by learning which foods in your diet are considered ultra-processed. You don’t necessarily have to give them up. But once you know how to spot ultra-processed foods, it’s easy to find a less-processed substitute.

This is your body on ultra-processed foods

The growing focus on ultra-processed foods represents a paradigm shift in how the scientific and public health community thinks about nutrition. Rather than focusing on the nutrients, calories, or types of food, the focus is on what happens to the food after it is grown or raised and the physical, biological, and chemical processes that take place before we eat it.

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Foods can be unprocessed or minimally processed, such as all fruits and vegetables, refrigerated or frozen meats, dairy products and eggs that we buy. Other foods go through a moderate amount of processing – you can usually recognize these foods because they only have a few ingredients on the label. Think freshly baked bread and cheese, salted peanut butter, pasta sauce, bags of popcorn and canned fruits, fish and vegetables.

Then there are ultra-processed foods. At their core, they are industrial concoctions containing a multitude of additives: salt, sugar and oils combined with artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, stabilizers and preservatives. Usually they are subjected to multiple processing methods that transform their taste, texture and appearance into something not found in nature. Think Frosted Flakes, Hot Pockets, donuts, hot dogs, cheese crackers and boxed macaroni & cheese.

Research shows that our bodies seem to react differently to ultra-processed foods compared to similar foods that are not as highly processed.

In a tightly controlled clinical trial conducted by the National Institutes of Health, scientists compared what happened when they fed a group of people a diet of ultra-processed foods for two weeks and, on another occasion, a diet of matching meals that were usually made from scratch.

Both diets contain similar amounts of fat, sugar, sodium and fiber, and everyone was allowed to eat until they were satisfied. But to the researchers’ surprise, people ate significantly more calories when fed the ultra-processed foods. On average, they ate about 500 more calories per day — about the amount in a large order of McDonald’s fries.

On the diet of ultra-processed foods, the participants quickly gained weight and body fat. But on the unprocessed, homemade diet, the reverse happened: They lost weight, and they had a reduction in cholesterol and an increase in their levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone called PYY. They experienced a drop in their levels of ghrelin, the so-called hunger hormone. It’s not clear why the unprocessed and ultra-processed foods had such different effects.

“We can’t explain it yet,” said Kevin Hall, the study’s lead author and a scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “We have a dozen theories or more about what it is with ultra-processed foods that caused these effects.”

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Some experts argue that ultra-processed foods hook our brains and overwhelm our biology because they contain unnatural combinations of fat and carbohydrates, along with sodium and other flavor enhancers.

Some food scientists point to the texture of ultra-processed foods: they often contain little or no fiber, are easy to chew and digest quickly, despite being high in calories. Think how easy it is to chase away fast food chicken nuggets or a moist blueberry muffin packed with sugar, flour, and vegetable oils. These foods are absorbed quickly when they leave the stomach and enter the small intestine, causing a spike in blood sugar, insulin and other hormones.

“All bad things happen because of the great flow of nutrients in our bloodstream,” he said Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Many ultra-processed foods are made in industrial machines that subject grains, corn and other raw materials to extremely high pressures and temperatures. This can destroy micronutrients and create new compounds that can be harmful, including carcinogens, said Carlos A. Monteiro, an expert on ultra-processed foods and a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo’s School of Public Health. in Brazil.

“These foods contain many chemical compounds that are not nutrients,” he added.

Ultra-processed foods often contain a range of additives whose effects on our health we don’t yet fully understand, Mozaffarian said. “It’s not just the salt and sugar, which are obvious, but the artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, emulsifiers, stabilizers, guar gum and xanthan gum,” he said. “We don’t know they’re harmless.”

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Find less processed substitutes

The easiest way to eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet is to buy less prepared and packaged foods and consume more whole and minimally processed foods. Instead of buying sweetened fruit yogurts full of additives, buy yogurt and add berries, nut butter, and honey if you want. Consider skipping the frozen chicken nuggets and making these baked nuggets at home, which won’t take much more time.

Also avoid sugary soft drinks and sports drinks, which are high in additives and have little or no nutritional value. Replace with lemon or lime sparkling water, unsweetened tea, and plain water or water flavored with real fruit.

If you need the convenience of ultra-processed foods, check out the labels and comparison shop. Try to choose the products with the fewest ingredients. For help while shopping, you can open a website on your phone called truefood.tech. The site lets you type a food item you want to buy — such as chicken nuggets or cereal — and in response, the site will show you dozens of brands and recommend the least processed versions. The site uses machine learning to rank foods on a scale of 1 to 100 based on factors such as how many additives they contain and their degree of processing. The lower the score, the better.

The site was created by Giulia Menichetti and Albert-László Barabási, two scientists from Northeastern University who study ultra-processed foods and developed a database of more than 50,000 foods sold in supermarkets. You may be surprised by the wide variation in processing between different types of macaroni and cheese or if your favorite organic gluten-free chicken nuggets rank higher than a standard recipe.

Menichetti said that replacing some of the ultra-processed foods that are staples in your diet with unprocessed or less processed versions can lead to health benefits. “We’re not suggesting that you drastically change your diet,” she said. “We’re pushing you toward healthier eating patterns.”

In the meantime, other experts have called for aggressive government policies, such as stricter food labels and health warnings that could push the food industry to make healthier products.

“It will take some time for people to change their diet,” Monteiro said. “But if people start to consume less ultra-processed foods, the food industry will be forced to produce more minimally processed foods.”

Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail [email protected] and we can answer your question in a future column.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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