Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday July 1, 2023
From Addictive Bliss to Nutritional Abyss: Unraveling the Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods
Processed foods, such as canned beans and tinned fish, have been a part of the American diet for a long time. However, in the 1980s and 90s, food companies started creating what experts refer to as “ultra-processed foods” at a faster pace. These foods contain added sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, or preservatives. They are often made with substances extracted from foods rather than actual food ingredients. Examples of ultra-processed foods include chips, frozen dinners, soda, and fast food.
According to Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, ultra-processed foods now make up 73% of the US food supply. Research has linked these foods to health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Despite the risks, the average American adult gets over 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
One reason for this high consumption is that highly processed foods can be addictive. They can affect the brain in ways similar to drug consumption, making it challenging to consume just a small amount. People often find it difficult to resist the temptation to eat more.
In the early 2000s, a Brazilian researcher named Carlos Monteiro began studying the effects of processing on food. He noticed that while sugar consumption seemed to be declining in Brazil, rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes were increasing. Monteiro and his colleagues developed the Nova classification system, which categorizes processed foods based on their level of processing. The highest category, “ultra-processed foods,” is specifically engineered to be addictive and lacks nutritional balance.
Initially, research only showed a correlation between ultra-processed foods and obesity. To test the causal relationship, Kevin Hall, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), conducted a randomized controlled study in 2018. The study involved 20 healthy adult volunteers who followed either an ultra-processed or a minimally processed diet for two weeks, then switched to the other diet. The results showed that participants consumed 500 more calories per day during the ultra-processed diet weeks, and their bloodwork indicated elevated hunger-related hormones.
This study highlighted the unique quality of ultra-processed foods that leads to overeating. Compared to whole foods, processed foods have a different impact on both the ability and desire to eat.
Cheetos, for example, are particularly addictive due to various factors. They quickly melt in the mouth, creating the illusion of fewer calories. Additionally, the orange powder on Cheetos triggers a pleasurable reaction in the brain, and their crunchy texture tricks the brain into perceiving freshness.
Further research is being conducted to understand why ultra-processed foods cause overeating. In the meantime, individuals can gradually reduce their dependence on these foods by incorporating more minimally processed options into their diet. It’s important not to completely restrict any food since that can lead to increased cravings. Small incremental steps towards a healthier diet are more sustainable.
Policymakers could also play a role in promoting healthier choices by providing clearer information about the nutritional value of foods. Implementing labeling systems like the Nova system could help consumers make more informed decisions. Leaving it solely up to consumers to figure out the nutritional value of foods is not fair or effective. (AI)