Ultra-processed Foods: What Are They? Why Should You Care?

About half the calories consumed by people in high-income countries such as the United States and Canada come from ultra-processed foods, and such a high consumption of these “Franken-foods” contributes to many health problems.

            What are ultra-processed foods?

            Most of our food is processed to some degree, if only with preservatives, and not all processing is bad. Pasteurized milk is “processed,” and is generally safer than unpasteurized milk. Iodine added to salt gives health benefits.

            There are many ways to classify how foods are processed, but the most widely used system is NOVA, developed by academic food scientists in Brazil.

            NOVA Group 1 includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods. The latter includes removal of inedible parts, drying, roasting, freezing, etc., with no additives.

            Group 2 includes processed ingredients such as salt, sugar and oils that are used as additives.

            Group 3 includes foods where the Group 2 ingredients are added to Group 1 food to increase their durability and enhance their flavor.

            Group 4 foods are those that are ultra-processed, foods that are manufactured, often in several steps.

            Natural food products are fractionated into sugars, protein, oil and fats, starches and fiber. These component parts are then chemically treated, most often by hydrolysis or hydrogenation. The final food product is then assembled with various industrial techniques and colors, flavors and preservatives are added.

            Common ultra-processed foods we may consume daily include carbonated soft drinks, packaged snacks, ice cream, flavored breakfast cereals, prepared pies, pasta dishes and pizzas, “nuggets,” hot dogs, sausages and powdered instant soups and desserts. Note that some of these may be labelled “all-natural” or organic.

            Why should you care? High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and many gastrointestinal disorders.

            Recent studies have shown that ultra-processed foods, usually high in both sugar and fat, trigger a similar brain response as do addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol.

            What should you do? First, realize that U-P foods are not arsenic. Having a scoop of ice cream or some fries once in a while will not kill you. In moderation, they can be part of a healthy diet. The goal is to keep U-P foods to less than 25% of your daily calories.

            Eat fresh or stewed fruit in place of store-bought pies and cakes. For breakfast, have oatmeal or minimally processed granola with fruit rather than sugary cereals. Cook more: Bake chicken or fish rather than heating up prepared frozen dinners.

            Look at labels. If a product contains 4 or more ingredients, some of which you cannot pronounce, put it back. If it is obvious where the food came from (eggs come from hens, apples from trees) it is generally OK. If the origin is unclear, try something different.

            Don’t fall for hype – an “organic natural” packaged cookie might still be ultra-processed.

            Dr. Ed Hoffer is the chairman of the Marion Board of Health, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Medical School. He is Associate Professor of Medicine, part-time, at Harvard and a Senior Scientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

What Does The Doctor Say?

By Dr. Ed Hoffer

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