H for Health

More than 2 billion people are now either overweight or obese. By 2035, this will apply to nearly half the world’s population. A global obesity epidemic is sweeping across the world. It is stealing quality years of life from both children and adults, and it has vast economic implications globally. In many parts of the world, people now consume more calories from artificially produced food products than from natural foods. Homemade meals have largely been replaced by industrially produced, cheap, and convenient alternatives wrapped in crinkling plastic or colorful cardboard boxes. These products are referred to as ultra-processed foods.

In this article, we take a closer look at the effects of ultra-processed foods on our health. We’ve chosen to label them ‘food products’ because we believe they cannot be equated with regular foods. Additionally, you’ll receive 11 hacks on how to make healthier choices and reduce your intake of the ultra-processed food products.

Ultra-processed food products are ubiquitous in our daily lives. They dominate the fast-food market and constitute the majority of items in kiosks and gas stations. Sadly, many supermarket shelves are now also stocked with these ultra-processed food products. We encounter them at our workplaces, in restaurants, in social settings, and even in our own homes. They’ve become an integral part of our lives. Recent surveys from several Western countries reveal that we now obtain 50-60% of our caloric intake from ultra-processed food products, with the proportion even higher among children and teenagers. And it’s understandable. They offer unhealthy, but convenient, easy, and tasty solutions in a busy life. It’s not that we all lack the willpower to resist these foods. It’s about lacking awareness and, importantly, living in environments where it’s almost impossible to avoid them.

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Unfortunately, recent research suggests that ultra-processed foods come at a high cost. They are metabolized differently in our bodies. They are engineered to override our natural satiety cues, leading to overeating, weight gain, and an increased risk of developing various chronic diseases.

Examples of Ultra-Processed  Food Products

Ultra-processed food products include products that you may not even think of as junk food, such as candy, chips, soft drinks, cookies, and cakes. A significant portion of our baby and toddler foods, snacks, energy bars, long shelf-life baked goods, many breakfast cereals, pizza toppings, processed meats, sausages, nuggets, dressings, ready meals, ice cream, and other premade desserts fall under this category. This also includes some industrially manufactured plant-based meat substitutes. Plant-based milk alternatives containing added oils, salt, sugar, and thickeners are also considered ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-Processed Food Products Are  "Designed" to Be Addictive

Ultra-processed food products are crafted in a laboratory. By utilizing artificial additives, oils, salt, and sugar, these foods are designed to have a pleasing texture that feels delightful in the mouth. They often have a crispiness that sounds satisfying when bitten into. They taste unnaturally delicious, unlike anything found in nature.

The industry has engineered ultra-processed food products to be habit-forming for many of us. They stimulate the reward system in our brain, trigger cravings, create dependencies, and encourage overeating. They offer quick and convenient meals for our busy lives. We’re drawn to them, even if deep down we recognize that these so-called “foods” aren’t beneficial for us and bear little resemblance to real food.

Ultra-Processed Food Products Are Manufactured  with High Profit Margins

The industry, using modern methods and inexpensive raw materials, can efficiently produce these products with significant profit margins. They have no interest in making it clear to the consumers what these foods are truly made of. Product labels use extremely small fonts, and there’s a great deal of ingenuity in naming the ingredients. For instance, sugar goes by so many different names that it can be challenging to determine whether a product contains sugar or not.

The numerous artificial additives grant ultra-processed food products an unusually prolonged and unnatural shelf life. This means these products can stay on store shelves and in our homes longer without spoiling, even without refrigeration. This extended shelf life further amplifies the industry’s profit margins.

Research Suggests that Ultra-Processed Food Products Increase Our Risk of Obesity and Various Chronic Diseases

In ultra-processed food products, the fibers from the original ingredients are broken down during processing. In a typical Western diet, most of us consume far too few fibers. Yet, fibers are crucial for our well-being. They slow down our digestion, stabilize our blood sugar, and enhance our feeling of fullness. Furthermore, fibers provide nourishment for our beneficial gut bacteria, as discussed in our film ‘The Gut Microbiome and Our Health’. Studies have shown that ultra-processed foods promote gut microorganisms linked to inflammatory diseases.

Recent research also points to a connection between the consumption of ultra-processed food products and obesity. These products are designed not to stick to our teeth, making them easy to chew and swallow. We consume them faster, making it much more challenging for us to gauge how much we eat. Ultra-processed food products are absorbed more rapidly in our intestines, disrupting our body’s satiety signals. Consequently, we ingest more calories in a shorter time.

In recent years, many new observational studies have emerged, suggesting that consumption of ultra-processed food products is also associated with the development of various chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, dementia, and cancer.

What are  Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed food products are industrial formulations where the original ingredients have undergone extensive industrial processing, destroying their natural structure food matrix. These products generally contain large amounts of processed oil, salt, and sugar. To provide these items with a pleasing texture, an unnaturally good and addictive taste, an appealing color, and to make them long-lasting, a multitude of additives are included. These may include artificial sweeteners, colorants, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial flavorings, artificial flavor enhancers, preservatives, anti-caking agents, sequestrants and humectants. 

The abundance of these additives means that we now consume a plethora of chemical compounds manufactured in labs. They have no real connection to food. In many cases, our bodies don’t recognize how to process these substances. We are only now beginning to understand their long-term implications on our health and well-being.

The Brazilian doctor and nutrition professor, Carlos Monteiro, was the first to define ultra-processed foods. He introduced a new way to classify our foods, called the NOVA Food Classification System, released in 2009. In this system, our foods are divided into four groups based on the extent of their processing:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
  3. Processed foods
  4. Ultra-processed foods.

What Is the Difference Between Processed Foods and  Ultra-Processed Foods?

The first two food groups (Group 1 and Group 2) have served as food for humans for much of our history. When consumed in appropriate amounts, they do not pose health risks. Group 3 and Group 4 have emerged with the modern food industry. It’s important to distinguish between processed foods and ultra-processed food products. Recent research suggests that a high intake of ultra-processed food products (Group 4) increases our risk of obesity and chronic diseases. This correlation is not observed with a high intake of processed foods (Group 3). The two groups differ in the degree of food processing and the type of additives used:

  1. Processing:
    Both processed foods and ultra-processed food products have undergone processing. In processed foods, the original and complex inner structure – the food matrix – of the raw material is preserved and recognizable. In ultra-processed food products, this structure is disrupted, and it’s no longer recognizable.

  2. Additives:
    Both processed foods and ultra-processed food products contain additives. The difference is that the additives in processed foods are essential and added to make the food safe to consume and to extend its shelf life. Ultra-processed food products also contain these essential additives, but they also have numerous unnecessary, unnatural, and often problematic additives.

How are Ultra-Processed  Food Products Produced?

Many ultra-processed food products are made from inexpensive raw materials such as wheat, rice, oats, or corn to which unhealthy fats like palm oil, coconut oil, and trans fats are added. The process begins by milling the grains into fine particles or flour. During this stage, fibers and other nutritious components are often removed. This results in a refined starch product, which is used to enhance the texture and ‘mouthfeel’ of ultra-processed food products. The refined starch is also the foundation for producing a variety of ultra-processed food products through a manufacturing technique called extrusion cooking. During extrusion, starch, water, and other ingredients are passed through large steel tanks. The mixture is heated and blended, generating intense pressure inside the tank. This process disrupts the original inner structure – food matrix – of the raw material entirely. Eventually, the mixture is forced out of the machine through a small opening. As the pressure drops, the mixture expands, creating an artificial end product called an extrudate. The extrudate can be shaped into an endless variety of ultra-processed food products, such as breakfast cereals, chips, biscuits, cookies, doughnuts, breadsticks, croutons, and more. These products bear little resemblance to traditional food.

How Do We Take Better Care of  Ourselves and Each Other?

Armed with knowledge and proactive measures, we can collaboratively navigate away from the web of ultra-processed foods, fostering better care for ourselves and each other.

Most of us aspire to be happy. But many have lost touch with themselves and the foundation of a fulfilling life that genuinely brings happiness. We live in a world where alienation, pace, and quick fixes push individuals and families away from what is natural and pleasant. If each of us took a moment to ask ourselves whether we would choose a delicious, healthy, and nourishing meal over the consumption of ultra-processed foods designed in a lab and produced in a factory; the answer would be clear and unequivocal.

When we increasingly make the wrong choices, it’s high time to pause and take personal responsibility, deciding the future we want for our minds and bodies. Throughout most of our history, we’ve prepared our food and eaten it together. This  practice is unique to our species on Earth. The aroma, taste, beauty, and colors of a plant-based meal made by human hands offer a marvelous sensory experience. Preparing our own food is deeply engaging and meaningful. Yet for many, this requires relearning. We need to return to a lifestyle where there’s time and energy to teach ourselves and our children to prepare sustainable meals from organic, unprocessed, and quality ingredients. It’s vital that we educate ourselves and our children to opt for healthier and less processed foods whenever possible. We need to understand which ingredients are in season and produced locally, acquaint ourselves with their nutritional values, and be aware of their shelf life. This knowledge can also help us reduce food waste. For the sake of our environment and likely the many beneficial and essential microorganisms in our gut (as discussed in our film ‘Gut Microbiome Hacks’), we should opt for organic products whenever feasible.

Fortunately, many countries have begun to implement various measures in an attempt to reduce their populations’ consumption of ultra-processed food products. Countries like Belgium, Brazil, Ecuador, Israel, Malaysia, the Maldives, Peru, and Uruguay are now urging their citizens through official dietary guidelines to reduce or completely avoid ultra-processed food products. Major international organizations such as The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Cancer Research Fund, and WHO are advocating the same.

When we prioritize our health and well-being, we inevitably face resistance from entrenched habits. However, instead of being discouraged, we should concentrate on the health and environmental advantages of being mindful about our diet. By consistently making healthier choices, we pave the way for a happier, healthier, and more sustainable life.

10 Hacks for Making Healthier Choices and Reducing Your Intake of Ultra-Processed Foods

  1. Read food labels
    Read food labels. If a food contains ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t keep in your kitchen, be cautious.

  2. Oil, salt, and sugar
    Pay attention to added oils, salt, and sugar in products.

  3. Long shelf lives
    Beware of unusually long shelf lives. For instance, homemade bread lasts only a few days at room temperature, while factory-made bread can last months.

  4. Whole-foods
    Opt for whole foods or those with minimal processing.

  5. Cook your meals
    Whenever possible, set aside time to cook meals from scratch. Cook in large quantities for multiple meals or for freezing.

  6. Clean your environment
    Stock up with healthy choices and reserve ultra-processed foods for special occasions. If you keep candy, chips and cookies in your cupboards they will likely be consumed. In other words, ‘clean your environment.’

  7. Save time
    Save time by purchasing pre-washed and chopped fruits and vegetables. Frozen options are fine, as nutrients are retained.

    Choose pre-cooked legumes. Look for cans that are BPA-free, as BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical found in some can linings. Prefer foods packaged in paper or glass when possible. When cooking legumes at home, make large batches and store extras in the freezer.

  8. Plant-based meat alternatives
    If you use plant-based meat alternatives, choose organic options free from added oils, salt, sugar, and artificial additives. Limit consumption of meat alternatives made from ultra-processed soy protein isolate (as discussed in our film about soy).

  9. Plant-based milk
    If you consume plant-based milk alternatives, opt for organic versions without added oils, salt, sugar, and thickeners (Check out our informative film on ‘Milk, Business, Health, and Sustainability’).

  10. Baby foods
    For parents with young children, choose organic baby foods without added oils, salt, sugar, or artificial additives. Instead of tube-packaged baby foods, offer fresh ingredients such as fruits, bread, and homemade porridge.

Remember to show yourself kindness and understanding. We all have demanding days, and at times, a quick and easy meal might be the only realistic choice.

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