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You Are What You Ate

Ultra-processed foods

by Sara Garduno Diaz

Seasonal and imported foods on display at Sandal castle (including a purple carrot), photo courtesy of You Are What You Ate

Ultra-processed foods

Most of the food and drink we consume is processed to some extent. Any alteration to foods, say cooking, is a process; hence, in the modern diet, it is almost impossible to find someone who consumes a wholly unprocessed diet. In addition, many foods when unprocessed are unpalatable and indigestible. Processing food in itself is then not the problem that is faced by public health experts; rather it is the degree of processing and the displacement, to a great and sometimes even exclusive degree, that concerns health professionals.

Three categories for describing the degree of processing of foods have been put forward by Dr. Carlos Monteiro from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. He suggests that foods be grouped as follows:

1. Unprocessed/minimally processed: those whose nutritional properties are not altered. For example, a home-made soup or salad. This would also include products like cheese, which require a transformation from its original ingredients (in this case milk) but does not require the addition of industrially made additives.

2. Processed: culinary or food industry ingredients such as fats, sugars and starches; these are depleted of nutrients except for calories. For example, sweeteners, modified starch, butter, margarine.

3. Ultra-processed: products that combine processed ingredients. For example, crisps and sweets.

Man eating fast food whilst using laptop (drawing by John Welding)Most ultra-processed foods make use of additives including sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives, colours and flavours. While most of these undergo a rigorous process to ensure safety in their employment, the long-term consequences of their consumption are unknown.

Why are ultra-processed foods so popular?
Mostly because they are habit-forming and convenient. Ultra-processed foods are designed in a highly palatable fashion, that is, they appeal to our taste buds and leave us wanting more. Plus, these foods are made to be eaten anywhere; at fast-food establishments, as replacements for slow-cooked home meals, while driving, in front of a television or at a desk.

Then there is the money issue. Ultra-processed foods are generally cheaper to produce and to purchase. They also generally come in super-sized packages sold at discounted prices; not to mention that most of these foods are sold at 24/7 operating establishments and vending machines.

What is wrong with ultra-processed foods?
Most ultra-processed foods are high in energy density (lots of calories in small volumes of food) and their consumption is often out of control, aided greatly by arduous advertisement campaigns. Their over consumption has been associated with obesity world-wide.  Ultra-processed foods are also usually confectioned out of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients. They have even been addressed as 'edible food-like substances'!

Closeup of a cheeseburger and chips (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)In addition to health related concerns, the production of ultra-processed foods impact on other areas. The leading branded ultra-processed products are manufactured by transnational enterprises. These companies have regular practices to keep production costs low, such as purchasing low-cost ingredients (on occasions subsidised) and penetrating markets in low-income countries in an aggressive manner that may drive local industries out of businesses.

So, for or against?
The purpose of producing ultra-processed foods is to increase the sources of durable, accessible, attractive and convenient products; an issue of great importance to the ever-growing global population. They are produced in a way that delays their deterioration, giving them a longer shelf life and making their long-distance transportation feasible. There are some products that are hard to classify using the above mentioned categories. Take bread for example: the basic ingredients for bread (flour, water, salt, yeast) require a modification process, yet bread can be made both at an industrial level and at home. Some bread has a long shelf life, while others perish quickly (usually the ones high in fats from whole grains and seeds); do these characteristics make bread a processed or ultra-processed food? Defining whether a single food is unprocessed, processed or ultra-processed will not make or break a diet, rather it is the combination of the foods that we select for our regular consumption that will make the strongest impact. The World Health Organisation recommends limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods we eat. A demand for healthier convenience foods should be made and pursued and the consumption of balanced diets should be a regular practice.

Further reading
The big issue is ultra-processing. Carlos Monteiro. Available from: http://www.wphna.org/wn_commentary_ultraprocessing_nov2010.asp (accessed 9.1.13)
How ultra-processed foods are killing us. Marion Nestle. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/11/how-ultra-processed-foods-are-killing-us/65614/ (accessed 9.1.13)
Is processed food healthy? Available from: http://www.livestrong.com/article/381669-is-processed-food-healthy/ (accessed 9.1.13)

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