Ultra-processed foods are a must at the kitchen table in many households. These include food products that may not come under junk food such as breakfast cereal, muffins, snack bars, soft drinks, and energy drinks.
These food products cover a significant portion of the world’s diet. More than 60 percent of the calories in adult Americans come from ultra-processed food. This measure varies between 25 to 50 percent in countries such as England, Canada, France, Japan, Lebanon, and Brazil.
Every year, companies producing ultra-processed food introduce new products in a variety of flavors. These products are a combination of sugar, fat, sodium, and artificial flavors. Scientists call this hyper-palatable which indicates food that is irresistible, easy to overeat, and provokes strong cravings in the brain.
Scientists have pointed out that high consumption of ultra-processed foods leads to obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. A recent study, made on more than 22,000 people, has shown that those who consume a high amount of ultra-processed foods have a 19 percent increased chance of early death and about 32 percent have a higher risk of death due to heart disease.
Body on ultra-processed foods
With people’s focus on ultra-processed foods, there is a shift in how the scientific and public health community are heading on with nutrition. This focus has shifted from nutrients, calories, or type of food to what and how the food should be processed after it grows and before we eat it.
Some foods are unprocessed such as fruits, vegetables, frozen meat, dairy products, and eggs; while some foods undergo moderate processing as the ingredients are mentioned on the label such as bread, cheese, bags of popcorn, and pasta sauce among others.
Scientists at the National Institute of Health conducted tests in which they fed ultra-processed foods to a group of people for weeks and compared it to a diet of similar meals made from scratch. Both diets contained the same amounts of fat, sugar, sodium, and fiber and they ate until they were satisfied. Scientists noticed that those who were fed ultra-processed food ate more calories. On average, they consumed 500 calories in a day equivalent to a larger amount of McDonald’s fries.
It was noticed that people on the ultra-processed food diet gained weight quickly which is not the case with the unprocessed and homemade diet. They lost weight and had reduced levels of cholesterol and an increase in the levels of appetite-suppressing hormones, PYY. They experienced a reduction in the levels of ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormones.
Substituting ultra-processed foods
A way to substitute ultra-processed foods is to buy fewer canned foods such as flavored yogurt and buy plain yogurt and berries and honey. Keeping frozen chicken can be baked easily in less time. Drink lime water, unsweetened teas, and plain water instead of soft drinks.
It is advised to carefully read and compare the ingredients on the product label while shopping for ultra-processed foods.
Homemade ultra-processed foods
While experts believe in stricter food labels and warnings to eat healthier. Carlos A. Monteiro, an expert on ultra-processed foods and a professor of nutrition and public health at the School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil said, “It will take some time for people to change their diets. But if people start to consume fewer ultra-processed foods, the food industry will be forced to produce more minimally processed foods.”