Ultraprocessed foods – Not what your body asks for

In the last few centuries human diet, has undergone significant changes, mainly by shifting towards the industrial highly processed food from more traditional nourishing diets which have sustained mankind for millenia. Some groups of people like Australian Aborigines, Eskimos, Swiss alpine people, indigenous peoples of North and South America and other populations had literally thrived on their traditional diets which we can’t say about people eating highly processed foods that are often deprived of nutrients. Generally, traditional diets were characterized by the absence of highly processed food with emphasis on maximal digestability, nutrient density and proper absorption of important vitamins and minerals. Currently most of the people consume highly processed convenience foods at the expense of more nutritionally valuable foods that our ancestors ate (1, 2). Nowadays, energy intake of children and adults is made of 58% by ultraprocessed foods in the US (3), 48% in Canada (4) and 36% in France (5).

Of course food has been also processed in various ways during evolution – with the use of fire, water and salt as well as stewing, smoking, and fermentation. However these are far from today’s modern methods of processing (6–8).

Since the 1980s the extent of food processing has developed rapidly, thanks to technological advances, which has resulted in situation when nearly all of the shelves at supemarkets are filled with ultraprocessed foods. Usually these foods undergo many processes like refining, whitening, deodoriazation, flavor enhancement, chemical preservation etc. Thanks to the modern techniques of processing food industry has been able to produce a vast range of palatable products made from cheap industrial ingredients and additives (9). Besides intense palatability other advantages of these foods are prolonged durability, and time convenience with ready-to-eat products. On the other hand, highly processed food has detrimental impact on nutrition quality of food and consequently on our health (9, 10).

According to the extent and purpose of the industrial processing, food products are classified into four groups (by the NOVA classification scheme) (10-14):

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are fresh or have been minimally altered by methods like drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, pasteurization, freezing, non alcoholic fermentation etc. There is no adding substances sech as salt, sugar, oils or fats. This group includes fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, milk, nuts and oil seeds, legumes, rice, and other grains.
  • Processed culinary ingredients includes ingredients (salt, sugar, oil, fats and starch) which are used in combination with unprocessed /minimally processed foods.
  • Processed foods are result from combination of the previous groups – canned fruits or vegetables, salted or sugars nuts, cured or smoked meats, and cheese.
  • Ultraprocessed foods are made from mix of large amount of culinary ingredients and industrial additives – varieties of sugars (e.g. fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, matodextrin), modified oils (e.g. hydrogenated oils), protein sources (e.g.hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten) and food additives (e.g. flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, sweeteners).

Examples of typical ultraprocessed foods are sweetened bevarages, sweets, ice cream, chocolate, candies, biscuits, patries, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, margarines, fruit yoghurts, instant and pre-prepared frozen meals and sausages, burgers, hot dogs etc. 

Ultraprocessed foods (also called ready-to-eat foods) have been mainly industrially prepared food products requiring no or minimal home preparation. Therefore they have become very convenient choices for busy people, mainly for increasing proportion of women employed outside the home (15). Cereal bars are used as fast snack to go, pre-prepared frozen meal shows cheap and fast-prepared dinner for busy mothers, and breakfast cereals whose labeling tries to convince us that it is “best for our children” are used as everyday easy breakfast for children.

Since ultraprossed foods have been introduced, eating habits have changed. For many people eating no longer serves a primary function of mitigating hunger and replenishing energy and nutrient stores. Because of high palatability, eating rather serves to satisfy cravings regardless of their hunger, in turn many of us eat out of habit instead of physiological need. Unfortunately, these products are very dense in energy and their nutrition profile is poor because of their often high content of fat, sugars, salt, and lack of vitamins, and minerals . Ultraprocessed foods are generally low in dietary fibre, water and protein (16-25) that causes low satiety potencial (26) and frequent eating. These aspects can also increase risk of overweight and obesity (27–30) and related diseases (hypertension (31), coronary and cerebrovascular diseases (32), dyslipidaemia (33), metabolic syndrome (34), gastrointestinal disorders (35), and total and breast cancer (36).

Kessler (2009) identifies ultraprocessed foods as responsible for heightening appetites, inducing overeating, and causing excessive weight gain (37). This fact was demostrated in recent study. Hall et al. (2019) exposed twenty adult inpatients to ultraprocessed and unprocessed diets for fourteen days each. Participients were instructed to consume as much or as little as desired. Despite the ultraprocessed and unprocessed diets being matched for daily presented calories, sugar, fat, fiber, and macronutrients, participients ate more when exposed to ultraprocessed diet. Their higher energy intake (with increased consumption of carbohydtrates and fat) correlated with weight gain. With unprocessed diet there was observed weight loss (38).

Ad libidum intake was approximately 500 kcal/day more on the ultraprocessed versus unprocessed diet (Hall et al. (2019)

Limiting consumption of ultraprocessed food may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.

To sum it up:

  • Prefer unprocessed /minimally processed foods, simple natural foods.
  • Read food labeling, food composition is reflective of quality of the product.
  • Generally the more ingredients the food product contains, probability of its low quality grows.
  • If you want to lose weight and be healthier try to avoid ultraprocessed foods.

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