Check out your fridge and pantry and grab some of your favorite snacks. Next, check the ingredient list. Can you identify everything there?
A long, cryptic name that seems foreign to your spice cabinet – probably isn’t. What you are holding in your hand is an ultra-processed food (UPF).
We all eat processed foods to some degree, but there is a clear contrast between minimally processed foods such as flour, frozen vegetables, and lightly cooked dishes, and the highly processed areas of the UPF. . These creations are infused with various industrial substances, seasonings, flavors, and preservatives, taking them to different levels of processing.
How is our food processed?
There are many different ways to measure the extent of food processing, but one notable approach is the NOVA system developed by Brazilian researchers.
Located within this system is Group 4, known as ultra-processed foods.
These products boast ingredients you’d never find in your average home kitchen. Its ingredients include food extracts and industrial additives that enhance texture and color, and maintain our appetite with the perfect balance of salt and sugar. These ingredients stimulate our sense of fullness, making us unaware of how much we’re consuming. Additionally, UPF’s packaging is designed for maximum convenience, allowing it to be taken on the go or with minimal effort, often in the microwave or with just hot water.
Convenient, Ubiquitous, and Addictive
When food companies develop new products, they conduct taste tests to determine which version will induce the most consumption among taste groups.
These UPFs are frequently endorsed by celebrities through aggressive marketing campaigns to instill confidence and encourage purchase. The stars don’t endorse quinoa, grains, vegetables, or fruits.
As technology advances, these foods become more available and have longer shelf lives thanks to efficient production, transportation, and preservatives. Ships from major food companies are now boarding remote locations such as the Amazon to deliver highly industrialized foods to people with limited access. This phenomenon has led to a proliferation of once rare health problems in these communities.
Many studies have linked ultra-processed foods to negative health and behavioral effects. These include increased cholesterol levels, obesity, food addiction, increased food consumption, cancer, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease, stunted growth, high blood pressure, and even depression and anxiety. Additionally, these foods can change the composition of your microbiome, which is a collection of bacteria. Our digestive system is closely linked to our overall physical and cognitive health.
The effects of a heavily processed diet
A diet high in highly processed foods disrupts the gut flora and promotes the development of degenerative diseases. Compared to naturally processed foods, they contain less fiber, vegetables, and healthy nutrients. This dietary change creates an inflammatory environment in the gut, contributing to chronic metabolic disease and potentially cognitive decline. The high fat and simple carbohydrate content of these products is associated with neuroinflammation and decreased cognitive function.
The enchanting combination of colors, tastes, sounds and aromas creates a sensory fest that begins the moment you open the bag and ends unnoticed when the package is emptied.
Consumers of ultra-processed foods tend to consume more calories each day due to the calorie-dense nature of these products, reinforcing the addiction cycle. In contrast, whole foods and less processed foods force a slower, more deliberate eating process. Studies have shown that people who ate raw or minimally processed foods for two weeks without calorie restriction consumed about 1,500 fewer calories than those who ate only ultra-processed foods.
Recent studies have also investigated the relationship between ultra-processed diets and mental health. A Brazilian study during the COVID-19 pandemic found higher rates of depression and anxiety among people whose diets included more ultra-processed foods. Similarly, a study of 14,000 Spanish university graduates found a link between food choices over a 10-year period and the onset of depression, and increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to anxiety and depression. The relationship with the symptoms of the disease was emphasized.
what are you eating?
This proverb emphasizes that our food choices reflect our attitude towards our bodies and health. Nutrient-dense foods are fresh, minimally processed, and free of toxins, preservatives, and artificial colors. Whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, herbs, fish, eggs, lean poultry, and dairy products provide essential nutrients for physical and mental health.
In this modern age of convenience, ordering a meal is easy. Still, home cooking skills are important. Research consistently shows that people who are more skilled in the kitchen eat less processed food. Therefore, we adults have a responsibility to involve children early in the preparation of healthy, diverse, and fresh meals and to develop children’s skills, awareness, and self-care.