Read the text below and answer the questions.
How Ultra-Processed Foods Really Affect Our Health
Not all processed food is unhealthy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that anything that changes the fundamental nature of an agricultural product–freezing, chopping, peeling, boiling, and juicing–is processed food. By this definition, processed food can be a good source of essential vitamins and minerals. Processing food is not problematic in itself. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are store-bought items that tend to have a long shelf life, have high amounts of sugar and fat, and are laden with cosmetic additives like flavors, colors, and emulsifiers. The term comes from the NOVA food classification system, a system created to classify foods based on how they are processed.
A lot of people have a difficult time figuring out what counts as ultra-processed and what doesn’t. Is a small pot of yogurt considered ultra-processed? How about the cheddar cheese that all families have at home? What is easier is to figure out which products are not ultra-processed. If it is cheap, convenient, tasty, and packs a lot of calories, it is almost always an ultra-processed food product.
These “edible, food-like substances”, as described by the US food writer Michael Pollan, now make up 50.7% of a typical UK family’s supermarket purchase. Based on a study of household availability of ultra-processed foods in 19 European countries, UK families buy more ultra-processed food than other countries in Europe.
The problem with this trend is that eating ultra-processed foods can cause serious health problems. These foods have very low nutritional quality and the long-term, cumulative effects are still unknown.
Mounting evidence also suggests that minimally-processed foods are more satiating than ultra-processed food products. Satiety signals are psychological responses that follow food consumption and are believed to inhibit food intake. A meal composed of ultra-processed foods may lead to different satiety signals and promote over-consumption.
The many health risks linked to an increase in ultra-processed food consumption include cardiovascular diseases, high cholesterol levels, and some types of cancer. However, sound evidence is still scarce.
A small study done in 2019 showed that people who had ultra-processed diets gained weight as opposed to people who consumed minimally-processed food, despite matching the amount of sodium, sugar, and calories for each group. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the Dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, said that the problem with ultra-processed foods is that some have not been designed with health in mind. Manufacturers create products that prioritize taste, cost, safety, shelf life, and mouthfeel. When taste, shelf life, and cost are the priority, nutrients are stripped out and additives, emulsifiers, and stabilizers are put in. All these additives are considered safe for the general public but the long-term effects of consuming food flavorings, for example, have not been studied extensively.
Heavily-processed foods usually lack fiber as well, changing how the body digests food, which also affects the delicate balance of gut bacteria. Initial findings suggest that gut bacteria may be the key to preventing certain diseases like cancer and immune disorders.
Food and nutrition experts acknowledge that, for a vast majority of people, eliminating ultra-processed foods from their diet is not a viable option. When choosing packaged and ultra-processed food, being aware and reading the nutrition information on the packaging is a good first step. Choosing whole-grain bread instead of white bread is also a good choice. Understanding the difference between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods are helpful when faced with decisions while shopping for groceries.
A recent study done in August 2020 reveals that there is a huge increase in demand for ultra-processed food all over the world. As countries grow richer, higher volumes and a wider variety of ultra-processed food are sold. With the proliferation of these products on supermarket shelves, is it possible to eat less if not completely avoid them? Anne-Marie Stelluti, a registered dietitian, recommends adding minimally-processed food one meal or snack at a time. This could be as simple as replacing a granola bar with grapes and walnuts. Cooking at home is another proactive way to eat less ultra-processed foods, according to Stelluti. Cooking meals in advance is an option for those who do not have time to cook on the weekdays.