Ultra-processed foods: “Aren’t food”

It is important to remember that ultra-processed foods should not be considered food, but edible industrial preparations. Its frequent consumption can have negative effects on our physical and mental health. It is essential to be aware of this in order to make informed decisions about our diet and prioritize healthier options.

There’s no doubt that ultra-processed foods are everywhere these days. In recent decades, its presence and accessibility has grown rapidly and deliberately, first in high-income countries and then in the rest of the world. This expansion was strategically designed to meet global demand. In the United States, and also in the United Kingdom, about 60% of caloric intake already comes from ultra-processed products.

It’s no surprise that messages about these products are everywhere. In many news stories, they are pointed out as the main culprits for the rise of health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. But not all of them are critical, there are also influencers who advocate to stop consuming them.

Candy, soft drinks, cookies, nuggets and ready-to-eat meals are products made primarily from industrial ingredients and contain little or no natural food. However, it’s important to note that these products have their place in everyday life, offering convenience and variety in our busy diets. Therefore, it is recommended to balance the consumption of these processed foods with healthier and more nutritious options to ensure healthy eating.

It’s important to note that high-calorie foods are often high in sugars and fats, which means they don’t offer many essential nutrients like protein or micronutrients. In reality, these foods provide very little except empty calories.

Definition of ultra-processed

In 2009, Carlos Monteiro coined the term “ultra-processed” for the first time. Although there is no specific legal definition, the most accepted one in the field of public health is precisely the one proposed by Monteiro and his collaborators. They define the ultra-processed as “industrial formulations produced from substances obtained from food or synthesized from other organic sources.” And they continue: “They typically contain little or no intact food, are ready to eat or heat, and are high in fat, salt, or sugars and low in dietary fiber, protein, various micronutrients, and other bioactive compounds.”.

Ultra-processed, cheap, comfortable, but unhealthy and misleading

In short, ultra-processed foods are industrially produced from ingredients derived from other foods. These products have been improved to be appealing to the palate and extremely practical, as they can be consumed anytime, anywhere.

In addition, we must highlight its incredible profitability. Ultra-processed foods have a long shelf life and are very cheap to produce. In fact, the manufacture of this type of product (such as sugary drinks) has become one of the most profitable and constantly growing businesses.

These products are an inexpensive alternative to fresh or processed foods and are misleadingly advertised with messages like “rich in vitamins”. Furthermore, they use claims to hide potential harm in order to influence consumer purchasing decisions.

What is its effect on health?

Implementing traceability and food safety systems is essential to guarantee the quality and well-being of our food. These systems are highly effective and give us peace of mind in knowing that food, ultra-processed or not, will not cause immediate harm to our health.

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But the scientific evidence about the harm caused by ultra-processed foods is irrefutable. There are numerous studies that show the direct relationship between its consumption and the increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, as well as the increased risk of premature mortality. An editorial recently published by Miguel Ángel Royo-Bordonada and Maira Bes-Rastrollo in Gaceta Sanitaria conclusively summarized this evidence.

A recent study was also conducted in the UK involving nearly 200,000 adults. The results are impressive: it was concluded that the consumption of ultra-processed foods not only has negative effects on our health, but also increases mortality from certain types of cancer, especially ovarian cancer in women.

This is crucial information for making informed decisions about our diet and lifestyle. And this is not the first. Last year, a study was conducted in the United States that established a link between ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer.

Added to this are the ever-increasing discoveries about the impact of these products on mental health. A fascinating long-term research study with a ten-year follow-up revealed a troubling connection. According to this study conducted in Brazil, an association was found between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline in more than 10,000 adults. This gives us even more reason to be mindful of our lifestyle and make healthier food choices.

What would be the harmful effect?

As for how it works, there are several theories. On the one hand, the possible damage may be related to the poor nutritional quality of common ingredients in this type of product: added sugars, refined flours, unhealthy fats and high salt content. It is important to keep in mind that consuming ultra-processed foods can negatively affect our diet.

These foods often replace healthier options such as fresh or less processed foods that provide higher nutritional quality. Therefore, it is essential to seek balance and prioritize the choice of better quality foods to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.

There are studies that raise other very interesting hypotheses, which are related to changes in satiety signals, imbalances in the diversity and composition of the intestinal microbiota, as well as the harmful inflammatory and oxidative effects of ultra-processed foods. These additional findings help us better understand potential factors contributing to these health issues.

After carefully analyzing the effects and explaining their plausibility at a biological level, it is crucial to take fiscal (taxes on sugary drinks) and regulatory measures (limiting exposure, especially of children and adolescents to this type of product) to stop the spread of these products. It’s time to act and protect our health, because it’s our rightwith effective policies that guarantee a safer future.

With information from: https://www.elpais.com.uy

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