Imagine you grab a bag of your favorite fries at the grocery store and on the front is a warning label stating that your favorite snack is “ultra-processed”. What does that even mean?
You’ve no doubt heard that whole foods (think fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, etc.) are a better choice all day, every day. Yet so many aisles in grocery stores remain dedicated to hundreds if not thousands of shiny, prepackaged, ready-made “foods” (food is in quotes because many of these products do not provide nutritional value). Other countries, such as Chile, Uruguay, and Israel, have started implementing nutrient warning labels for products high in fat, sugar, saturated fat and calories. However, such a notion has yet to come to fruition in the United States.
However, this is exactly what a recent comment published in the leading medical journal Bmj said it must happen to protect consumers from foods that could be harmful to their health. The report, titled “Warning: Ultra-Processed – A Call to Warn About Foods That Are Not Really Foods,” stated that “it is time for consumers to have the opportunity to see ultra-processed foods for what they are: foods that are not real foods, containing nutrients but not real nutrition, pervasively marketed by supranational companies that offer choices that are not real choices “.
Ouch. Tell us how you really feel, why not?
In response to the interview questions, one of the commentary’s co-authors, Trish Cotter, senior consultant and global leader of the Food Policy Program at Vital Strategies, said: “More and more consumers are learning that ultra-processed foods contribute to worse health. . These packaged foods cannot be prepared at home or in the kitchen, but marketing can make them very attractive and difficult to differentiate from healthier foods. “
Cotter and his team believe consumers shouldn’t take the time to go through every single nutrition label and ingredient list of the products they buy at the supermarket. Instead, these potentially harmful food options should carry an “ultra-elaborate” warning label to “enable consumers to make healthier decisions in real time.”
What’s the problem?
Research has linked diets rich in ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, cancer and even death. Although you can only occasionally snack on ultra-processed foods in moderation, surveys reveal that high-income countries get 50% or more of their total calories from ultra-processed foods while children and teens consume even more.
Meanwhile, obesity, diabetes, some common cancers, heart disease and more continue to grow year after year, with some experts claiming to have reached pandemic levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the obesity rate has nearly tripled since 1975, while diabetes has almost doubled since 1980. WHO statistics also reveal that over 1.9 billion adults (aged or over 18 years old) were considered overweight in 2016 and of these, more than 650 million were considered obese.
Additionally, a recent study showed that young adults fed an ultra-processed diet for two weeks typically ate 500 more calories per day than those on an unprocessed diet. Those consuming an ultra-elaborate diet gained an average of two pounds over the two weeks (some gained even more weight).
So what exactly are ultra-processed foods?
According to a report released by Cambridge University Press in February 2019, ultra-processed foods are not “real food”. They are “formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready-to-eat hyper-palatable food and beverage products using flavors, dyes, emulsifiers and a host of other cosmetic additives. Most are made and promoted by transnational and other companies. large companies. Their ultra-processing makes them highly profitable, intensely attractive and inherently unhealthy. “
Ultra-processed foods also contain cosmetic additives including flavorings, flavor enhancers, dyes, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners and defoamers, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and icing agents. Basically, ultra-processed foods are products that have low-cost ingredients, a long shelf life, and appeal to our senses: sight, taste, smell and touch. Some experts find them compelling. According to the comment of Bmjultra-processed foods are “foods that cannot be prepared in the home kitchen because they have been chemically or physically transformed using industrial processes”.
Dietitian Molly Hembree explained it this way: “One way to think about food processing is how many steps need to be taken from the farm to the shape you are eating on your plate. Often some degree of simple processing, such as pumpkin puree for getting canned pumpkin, frozen strawberries to get a bag of frozen strawberries or forming whole wheat into spaghetti strings is necessary to produce a quality product. “
“But the addition of numerous ingredients, which require added sugar, sodium and fat, as well as incorporating added colors, flavors and preservatives, often pulls food away from its ‘whole’ form and diminishes its nutritional value,” concluded Hembree.
Multiple sources have identified ultra-processed foods such as sodas, cakes, cookies, French fries, ice cream, candy, cake mixes, frozen desserts, prepackaged pizzas, certain mass-produced breads, instant soups, sandwich cuts, hot dogs, and more. Ingredients of ultra-processed foods include “varieties of sugars (fructose, high fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrates’, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose), modified oils (hydrogenated or interesterified oils) and protein sources (hydrolyzed protein, isolated soy protein, gluten, casein, whey protein and ‘mechanically separated meat’). “
For more information, check out 8 fast food chains with the most toxic food packaging.
Which products should have a warning label, STAT?
We asked nutrition experts to name a few examples of products that should have an “ultra-fancy” warning label printed on the front of the package. These were the objects they identified.
This is an ultra-processed corn tortilla loaded with sodium and containing unhealthy ingredients like MSG, vegetable oils, palm / soybean oil, artificial colors, and many ingredients that aren’t whole / naturally derived, according to nutritionist Amy Shapiro. And we bet it’s not the only commercial tortilla chip out there with such a terrible ingredient list.
According to Shapiro, sodas are a high-sugar product that provides “zero health benefits and has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions.” With artificial colors, multiple forms of sweeteners, and more, he believes sodas aren’t just cheap, but addictive and unhealthy.
“Marketed as a healthy snack, this bar contains more than six types of sugar in one bar,” warns Shapiro. “Sure, it has ‘whole grains’, but it also has guar gum and inflammatory ingredients that make it less than healthy and definitely ultra-processed.”
“This product starts with refined wheat flour, adds sugar, a processed sausage link, artificial flavors and other additives to make it an ultra-processed food,” said Hembree.
“Most of the products marketed as desserts are ultra-processed, including this item,” said Hembree. “The main ingredient is sugar, followed by more sugar like corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, then a long list of added oils, gums, dyes, flavors and preservatives.”
With Fruity Pebbles cereals, sugar is the second ingredient and hydrogenated vegetable oil is the third. “They use five different artificial colors and artificial flavors,” said Shapiro. Additionally, Fruity Pebbles contains the BHA preservative, which has been criticized for being carcinogenic.
Top Ramen definitely ticks the boxes for the ultra-fancy category, Hembree said. And, while stories have circulated about hungry artists and actors living on Top Ramen trying to get big (watching you, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck), this super cheap product is made with a number of questionable ingredients. These include enriched flour, palm oil, food coloring, silicon dioxide, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, hydrolyzed corn protein, and more.
In addition to calling for warning labels on over-processed foods, Cotter and his co-authors are calling on government bodies and health food advocates to step up and regulate these types of items. In the meantime, there are things you can do to protect yourself.
Shapiro suggested choosing whole foods based snacks, such as pickles, hummus, nuts, seeds, and trace mixes. He said it’s best to plan ahead and prepare your own snacks so that you don’t buy an ultra-elaborate item.
Hembree said he aims to consume minimally processed foods on a regular basis. He also said it’s okay to eat ultra-processed foods on special occasions (all in moderation, right?). By doing so, it “will help in the battle against obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions,” she said.
Cotter said that until the warning labels are implemented, “he will continue to look for foods with five or fewer ingredients that look like something I could make at home, and that’s the advice we give to others.”