In the realm of packaged foods, there is a growing concern that what we consume is essentially predigested. Popular products like breads, cereals, snack chips, and frozen meals undergo extensive industrial processing, which can significantly alter their effects on our bodies. Recent research suggests that ultra-processed foods, the products of intense manipulation by food manufacturers, have a profound impact on our appetite, hormones, weight gain, and the likelihood of developing obesity and chronic diseases.
The concept of ultra-processed foods has gained significant attention worldwide, with governments and experts acknowledging their contribution to poor health. Several countries have even issued dietary guidelines urging people to reduce or eliminate the consumption of ultra-processed foods. In the United States, where these foods account for a staggering 58 percent of calorie intake, government experts are investigating the link between ultra-processed foods and obesity, which could influence the influential Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Supporters of the packaged food industry argue that processed foods are essential for creating an affordable and accessible food environment. They believe that processing technologies add value, safety, and nutrition while reducing costs and food waste.
One of the key techniques used in creating ultra-processed foods is extrusion cooking, which involves high-pressure and high-temperature processes. While this method allows for the production of a wide range of shelf-stable foods, it also accelerates the absorption of glucose and other nutrients in our digestive tracts, leading to spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.
Extrusion cooking affects the structural integrity of food, disrupting the "food matrix" that influences nutrient bioavailability, our body's utilization of food, and our feeling of fullness after eating. Additionally, ultra-processed foods act as "delivery devices" for sugar, salt, fat, and various flavors and additives, making them highly palatable and potentially triggering compulsive eating behaviors.
To classify food based on the extent of processing, the NOVA system was developed. It categorizes food into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are defined as industrial formulations made from extracted substances or synthesized compounds, often created through techniques like extrusion and frying.
While defenders of ultra-processed foods argue for their affordability, nutrient enrichment, and long shelf life, critics believe that these foods are responsible for health issues. Research has shown that people consuming ultra-processed diets consume more calories and gain weight compared to those on mostly unprocessed diets. The rate of food consumption also increases significantly with ultra-processed foods.
Moreover, ultra-processed foods tend to be low in fiber, a crucial component for digestion and gut health. The highly processed nature of these foods prevents the release of nutrients in the lower gastrointestinal tract, disrupting the functioning of the gut microbiome and leading to adverse health effects.
Experts believe that the existing evidence calls for reformulating ultra-processed foods to make them less harmful. Efforts are underway to investigate the role of energy density and hyper-palatability in driving excessive consumption. Ultimately, the goal is to encourage the food industry to create healthier alternatives.
In general, the best thing a consumer can do is avoid all ultra-processed foods and enjoy locally sourced food as much as possible. Although it may take time for you palate to adjust, the results will manifest in a longer, healthier life.