Scientific research articles conclude that high consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to the risk of developing many diseases like obesity, hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. Statistics show that ultra-processed foods make up more than 50% of total energy daily in high-income countries like Canada, the US, and the UK. What they do is increase the glycemic load (high glycemia is an indicator of diabetes), are usually unsatisfying when it comes to satiety, and change our gut environment, allowing ”bad” microbes to multiply and lead to inflammatory diseases.
However, almost all food is processed before consumption. Even simply cooking our food is considered processing. So using the word ”processed” in a negative way to describe food gives people the wrong idea.
The issue is not processing. It is ultra-processed foods (…)
– Carlos A. Monteiro, et al (2019)
Ultra-processed foods are defined as ”formulations of ingredients mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes”. They are foods that go through a series of processing, usually in different industries/factories, and contain ingredients that aren’t usually used in the kitchen and that aren’t usually accessible at a regular grocery store.
The NOVA classification, which translates to ”new” in Portuguese, is a relatively new way to classify food. It made its first appearance in 2009 and has gotten more and more popular as time went on. It was the first time the concept of ”ultra-processed foods” was introduced, and it was one of the only food classification systems that associated the quality of food to the level at which it is processed, from minimal/no processing to ultra-processing. Although it has received a lot of criticism over the years, the researchers who first introduced it to the world are always open to debate and discuss how food affects public health, as well as the pros and cons of using such a classification system. Their conclusion that all ultra-processed foods are intrinsically unhealthy.
The latest Brazilian Food Guide was heavily inspired by the NOVA classification, and the new Canada’s Food Guide which was released in early 2019 also recommended to avoid ”ultra-processed” foods that are loaded with added sodium, sugar, and fat.
So, here are a few quick tips to identify ultra-processed food. Keep an eye out for:
- Ingredients with high-yield plant food (modified corn, wheat, soy, cane or beet ingredients);
- Ingredients from purees/grinds of animal carcasses (ex: added gelatin);
- Little to no whole food in the ingredients list;
- Added colors/flavors/emulsifiers/additives. Examples of these include a variety of sugars (high fructose syrup, fruits concernates or juices, maltodextrin, dextrose), modified oils (hydrogenated or interesterified oils), protein sources (hydrolyzed proteins, soy protein isolated, added gluten), or cosmetic additives that are usually used to mask an undesirable color, texture or flavor;
- Sophisticated and fancy packaging with health claims (that are a lot of the times not backed by science, and often aimed at youth.
While being able to properly read food labels is important, being able to understand the ingredients in the foods we eat is becoming more and more important. The food industry is not (yet) obliged to write on their packaging all the processes they’ve used to make the food items we buy on store shelves. Learning about what ingredients/nutrients to look out for on food labels is the best way to understand what we’re eating and how to protect ourselves from the diseases listed above.
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