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Ultraprocessed Foods: Convenience at What Cost?

We’ve all heard the health experts say we should eat less processed foods to improve our health. But what exactly do they mean by the term “processed?” Does buying something in a package automatically count as processed? What about the bag of organic Brussels sprouts I just bought at Trader Joe’s? Or the box of Mary’s Gone Crackers that lists only nuts and seeds on the label, but is certainly a processed form of these ingredients? Could there possibly be a spectrum of food processed that affects my health in different ways? The conversation doesn’t just end there, however. We are also left to wonder just how much these foods really do impact our health. With the fast-paced lifestyles so many of us now lead, processed foods offer a huge convenience factor, and without specific data proving a significant health concern, the risks may not seem to outweigh the benefits of forgoing that grab-and-go packaged turkey wrap combo with chips and a drink. With some new research now providing better consumer information, I want to sift through all the online conversation clutter and narrow down on the facts: what exactly is processed food and how exactly do they impact our health?

The Definition of Processed Foods

According to the National Health Service, a processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. This definition is far too broad in my view, since that could mean that roasted asparagus, riced cauliflower or beans being mashed into hummus are examples of “processed foods.” To make things a bit more clear, Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, published an editorial, citing the following criteria for determining the processing of a food substance:

  1. Mass-produced
  2. Consistent from batch to batch
  3. Consistent from country to country
  4. Uses specialized ingredients
  5. Uses pre-frozen nutrients
  6. Stays emulsified (ie: does not separate)
  7. Has a long shelf or freezer life

A recent study from France has now coined the term “ultraprocessed foods,” which it defined as “foods that contain multiple ingredients and are manufactured through a multitude of industrial processes.”  Basically, the further away and more unrecognizable a food is from its original state, and the more ‘stuff’ that is added to it, the more processed it is. So while that bag of riced cauliflower is slightly more processed than if you bought the whole head and grated it yourself, it is certainly not as processed as when you add egg, almond milk, starch, oil and seasonings to bake it into a pizza crust. And that homemade pizza crust is nowhere near as ultraprocessed as when you purchase the premade ‘cauliflower crust’ from the freezer aisle that boasts an ingredient list of cheese, rice flour, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, dehydrated onion, yeast and sugar, with cauliflower thrown somewhere in the top three. So I guess we have answered two of my questions:

  1. What exactly is a processed food? A food that has undergone multiple changes and ingredient additions.
  2. Is there a spectrum of processed foods? Yes: some foods are simply processed to be more consumable (such as riced cauliflower) and some are ULTRAPROCESSED to be nowhere close to its original food form (or as Michael Pollan so aptly describes them: “edible foodlike substances”).

What Role Do Processed Foods Play in Our Health?

Ok let’s get real for a minute – when I talk about processed foods here, I am not talking about the foods processed to simply be more consumable. No one is arguing that pre-riced cauliflower poses any health concerns (unless you want to talk about the effects of plastic packaging, in which case, please let me direct you to this incredibly interesting debate to take you down that thoroughly different rabbit hole). Rather, when I talk about processed foods and their health effects, I am indicating the ultraprocessed forms: those with an ingredient list 10 miles long of sugars, oils, salts, preservatives and artificial chemicals. I think if we are truly honest with ourselves, we all have that gut instinct that wonders whether eating ‘acesulfame potassium,’ ‘dimethylcellulose’ or ‘monosodium glutamate’ is really a good idea. Even if you never do a simple Google search to find out what these substances are (which you know you can do on your phone right there in the store right?) there is automatically that little voice questioning if that is even a real thing. Doesn’t make sense to listen to that voice? If it looks and sounds like a chemical, it probably is! And despite the advances in technology and AI, we are not mechanical robots who run on fuel – we are human being who run on food! FOOD, not chemicals.

But what about those ‘all natural’ ultraprocessed foods that don’t have any artificial ingredients? Unfortunately most of those have lots of unnecessary sugar and refined oils that, while natural, are in higher doses than they should be for appropriate metabolic function. It’s like shoving your entire plate of leftovers down the garbage disposal over and over again. Eventually, the mechanics wear out and you’re left with a clogged, stinky sink. In the body, this looks like increased blood sugar, increased triglycerides and even hormone imbalances – essentially a clogged (and sometimes stinky!) metabolic system.

But rather than listen to me rant on with basic logic, let’s see what the research says, shall we?

  • In that same editorial by Dr. Lustig mentioned earlier, her also describes key dangerous differences between processed and real foods:
    1. Not enough fiber: this leads to imbalances in gut flora, increased blood sugar and insulin resistance, increased cholesterol and inefficient bowel movements.
    2. Not enough omega3s and too many omega6s: this imbalance creates inflammation and clogs arteries, which significantly increases risk of heart disease.
    3. Not enough micronutrients, meaning vitamins and minerals: this lack of key nutrients leads to metabolic diseases over time, like diabetes and autoimmune diseases.
    4. Too many trans fats, additives, salts and sugar: these excesses are hard for the liver to metabolize so we end up with fatty liver disease, strained gallbladders and even slowed kidney function.
  • In a 2010 study, researchers compared the energy needed to consume and metabolize a whole food meal to that of an ultraprocessed food meal. They found that whole food required 50% more energy to digest, meaning this meal burned 50% MORE CALORIES while the calories from the ultraprocessed meal were absorbed 50% MORE! There are a lot of factors that could explain this and need to be further studied, but moral of the story is the more processed a food is, the more calories from that meal you will be storing for later…in the form of triglycerides more than likely.
  • In the cool new study from France I mentioned, researchers assessed the diets of 44,000 adults over the course of 7 years. They found that an average of 30% of adult intake was made of ultraprocessed foods and that for every 10% increase in ultraprocessed food intake, there was a 14% increased risk of early death! What!? I’ll take a whole apple and that bag of Brussels sprouts now please!

So what are our takeaways here?  We know that processed foods fall within a pretty wide spectrum of processing and we that the more processed that food is, the further away from its original source it becomes and the more ingredients that are added to it, the more damage it can do to the human body. This is not to say you can never ever eat a cauliflower crust pizza. You top that bad boy in tons of vegetables, a light sprinkling of grass-fed cheese and serve it with a glorious salad, and you’re lightyears ahead of your neighbor who just had Little Cesar’s delivery. What I hope you do take away from this is a bit more skepticism when you read a packaged label (here’s a simple guide to help you further) and a healthy dose of reality when you assess your own diet. Does 30% of your food come from ultraprocessed, edible foodlike substances? If so, are there items that can easily be modified to be made of more real food instead? Can you put an extra 30 minutes into meal prep over the weekend to take your workday lunches from fast food to real food? Or maybe your start small and simply find a new brand of cracker or nut butter or yogurt to try that has only real foods listed in the ingredients? No matter what change you make toward including more real foods and less processed ones will be a change that improves your health and if you need help in this venture, you know where to find me! So I leave you as I leave most of my classes, with my favorite Michael Pollan mantra: “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.”