Dying a Slow and Certain Death
Who would have thought that chowing down on a bag of neon orange cheese puffs or a jar of mystery "fruit" spread could possibly have any negative effects on our health?
But don't just take my word for it, let's dive into the numbers.
According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, individuals who consume more "ultra-processed" foods have a 20% higher chance of becoming obese. That's right, 20%! That means for every 5 people you know that are currently chubby, one of them can blame it on their love for processed foods.
But wait, there's more! Another study published in the journal "Circulation" found that consuming more ultra-processed foods increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18% and heart disease by 13%. So not only will you be the chubby one in your group of friends, but you'll also be the diabetic and the one with a ticking time bomb for a heart.
But wait, there's even more! A study by the World Health Organization suggests that ultra-processed foods are also associated with an increased risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, with a 12% increased risk. So not only will you be the chubby, diabetic, heart-disease-ridden friend, but you'll also have a higher chance of getting cancer. How fun!
And let's not forget about gut health! A study by the Journal of Nutrition found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of poor nutrient status, nutrient deficiencies and poor gut health. So not only will you have a higher chance of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but your gut will also be in shambles.
There has been a plethora of research into the effects of ultra-processed foods over the years, all of which indicate a damning future for the industry...
"Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake." - published in Cell Metabolism in 2019.
"Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort" - published in The BMJ in 2018.
"Ultra-Processed Diets and the Risk of Cardiometabolic and Cancer Mortality" - published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020.
"Processed food consumption and its association with diet quality, nutrient intake and body weight status: A systematic review of observational studies" - published in Obesity Reviews in 2020.
"Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study" - published in BMJ Open in 2017.
"Processed and Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Its Impact on Child Growth" - published in Nutrients in 2020.
Another large study involving almost 20,000 adults found that eating more than four servings of processed food daily was linked with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. And, for each additional serving, the all-cause mortality risk increased by 18%.
After reading this you're probably wondering how the processed food market has risen to USD 143.51 Billion in 2020 and is projected to reach USD 235.67 Billion by 2028, growing at a CAGR of 6.6% from 2021 to 2028.
Well, according to several nationwide food surveys assessing intakes, household expenses, or supermarket sales in European countries, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Latin American countries, ultra-processed products represent 25- 60% of total daily energy intake. That's a huge proportion of anyone diet.
So why is everyone living longer if what we're eating is killing us off?
ULTRA-processing is killing us all...
Ultra-processed foods are a subcategory of processed foods that are typically made with a combination of industrial ingredients and additives. They are typically high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and salt, and have been "linked" to a range of health risks.
It's important to note that these studies show a correlation and not causation. Further research is needed to establish a causal relationship between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and health risks, but it's recommended to consume whole foods as much as possible and to limit the intake of ultra-processed foods.
So there appears to be a lot of bad press around the topic of processed food, is it all justified?
Processed foods do have their benefits. The extent of the benefits and drawbacks will depend on the specific type of processed food and the ingredients used.
Convenience: Processed foods are often convenient and easy to prepare, making them a popular choice for busy individuals and families. What impact would it have if everyone spent even 30-minutes per meal in preparation and cooking? I bet many people would wonder where they might get that time from. What other aspects of their busy lives would suffer?
Long shelf life: Processed foods are often designed to have a long shelf life, which means they can be stored for longer periods of time, reducing food waste, which is high on the agenda for the food and ingredients industry. But also, this allows people to enjoy foods that may not be grown regionally.
Affordability: Processed foods can be less expensive than fresh foods, making them accessible to people with limited budgets. If all additives where removed from all foods in our supermarkets, it's expected that we would see a 200% increase in the cost of many foods due to more frequent "just in time" shipping of smaller volumes.
Nutritional fortification: Some processed foods are fortified with essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, making them a good source of these nutrients for people who may not get enough from their diet. And whilst fortification is often used because those nutrients are lost during processing there are more advanced methods of processing being used by many which don't create this problem.
It's clear that it's important to be mindful of the foods we consume, and to understand the effects that processed foods can have on our health. But almost all foods consumed in excess will create health problems. "Balanced and varied" is what we hear a lot of.
I personally believe that processed foods have a place on our shelves and in our diets; much of the research carried out by the scientific community demonstrates excessive consumption and not reflective of a normal human diet. Sure there are people that live with terrible diets and they suffer for it.
But, where does plant-based meat fall? If you use added ingredients to make one thing taste like something completely different, would this fall into the "ultra-processed" category? And has the impact of this, rocketing, relatively new sector on health been assessed?
Find out in part 2 of this series on Friday!