Let's cut to the chase about a hot topic that's been simmering in our kitchens: Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs). Now, before you roll your eyes and reach for that bag of chips, hear me out. This isn't your typical doom-and-gloom health lecture. Instead, I'm about to take you on a tantalising journey through the world of food science. So, let's explore what these UPFs are really doing to our bodies, and our minds.
Poor diet is now the top cause of early death worldwide. Consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods increases your risk of early death, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, inflammatory diseases like Crohn's, metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. And perhaps most alarmingly, it's linked to dementia.
How to Spot Ultra-Processed Foods
The ingredients list is your key to identifying ultra-processed foods. These foods have a long scientific definition because they encompass a vast range of products and industrial technologies. Look out for additives like emulsifiers, humectants, stabilisers, gums (like xanthan or guar gum), fruit concentrates, and natural flavorings. Even seemingly harmless ingredients are signs of ultra-processing.
If you start paying attention to the ingredients while you eat these foods, you'll start noticing weird things. You'll begin to realise that so much of what you eat which you thought was healthy
is actually ultra processed! You'll notice flavourings in your cereal, your bread contains things called tartaric acid, esters of mono and diglycerides of fatty acids and emulsifiers which makes bread smooth and spongy. You'll notice flavourings and emulsifiers in all your condiments, and you'll start to worry about it. This awareness will gradually decrease your desire for these foods – it's a bit like smokers who quit more successfully when they continue smoking while learning about its harms.
Natural ingredients are being replaced with synthetic ones, creating a culinary illusion that fools our bodies.
What's interesting is that you don't need to stress too much about fat, salt, and sugar in real food. Our bodies handle these well when they come from natural sources. The real problem is ultra-processed foods, which disrupt our ability to regulate nutritional intake. For example, replacing fat with gums and starches in the '80s didn't stop weight gain; it accelerated it. Similarly, replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners hasn't helped reduce obesity rates. Our bodies expect certain nutrients when we taste certain flavors, and when there's a mismatch – like with synthetic replacements – it confuses our internal regulation, leading to overeating.
Another good point is to learn about how additives affect your health. Additives may not be toxic per se, but their long-term effects on our gut microbiome and metabolic health are not well understood. Emulsifiers, for example, are everywhere and can damage the delicate lining of our gut, promoting harmful bacteria growth and potentially leading to conditions like liver cancer and fatty liver disease.
So, what can you do? If you're generally healthy and want to reduce ultra-processed food intake, start with breakfast. Replace processed foods with whole food equivalents. Oats are a great option, and not those sachet ones! Lunch is trickier due to the prevalence of processed options, but try nuts, fruits, or homemade meals.
Remember, real food requires cooking equipment, energy, storage space, and skills. Don't shame others for their food choices; often, ultra-processed foods are the only option available to some people. The key takeaway is that obesity and diet-related diseases are driven by food corporations, not individual failure. Like the tobacco industry, the food industry thrives on creating addictive products that harm our health. They need regulation. Even if they claim to make healthier options, they're still ultra-processed.
Government intervention is crucial to enforce change.
If you can reduce or avoid ultra-processed foods, I hope this helps. If not, remember it's not your fault – it's a systemic issue that needs addressing at higher levels. Stay informed and do what you can!