Ultra Processed Food
Ultra Processed Food
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Bye Bye Ultra Processed Food
Humans have been processing food forever. Processing can be as simple as picking through a basket of berries to remove any green fruits or leaves and freezing them for later, or it can be as complicated as altering the chemical bonds in a food. Today, most of the food we eat is processed in some way.
Processing is not inherently bad– it can improve food safety and allow us to store food for longer. However, when we refer to “processed food” we are usually referring to food products that have gone through such a high level of processing that they have lost most of their nutritional value, are engineered to be addictive, and usually don’t bear any resemblance to the whole ingredients they came from. Examples of this kind of processed foods include Dorito chips, Cheetos, vegetable oils, PopTarts, protein powders, and breakfast cereals. For clarity, we’ll refer to these types of foods as “ultra processed foods.”
Nearly all ultra processed foods contain artificial ingredients that have been constructed by Big Food to cut costs, achieve a “bliss point” to get you addicted, make food last longer, and more. Notice that none of those reasons are about the consumer’s health; they are all about the company’s profit. Ultra processed foods and artificial ingredients go together. The high levels of processing Big Food uses to make their long-lasting, addicting, brightly colored products include the additions of flavors, preservatives, colors, and emulsifiers.
Understanding food processing can help us discern which foods have been processed for our benefit and which foods have been processed beyond necessity and to our detriment. During the growing, harvesting, storing, and preparing of food, critical nutrients may be reduced, altered, or even destroyed. So, it’s helpful to be aware of the type of processing that a food has undergone and if any artificial ingredients have been added.
It’s not the food itself; it’s what’s been done to the food. We must always ask this simple question, “What has been done to our food?”
What are some examples of “normal” or “traditional” food processing?
Processing food is often a way to extend a food’s storage capacity or improve its flavor or texture. Sometimes these processes improve nutrients and sometimes they cause certain nutrients to decrease. That doesn’t mean you should only eat raw, fresh foods all the time– it’s simply something to be aware of and encourage a wide range of whole foods. When we refer to “bad” processed food, we are referring to ultra processed food (see below).
Here are some examples of methods of food processing that are common and have a low or medium impact on the ingredient’s nutritional value:
Grinding involves crushing or breaking down a food into smaller pieces, such as grinding corn down into grits or grinding peanuts into peanut butter.
Filtering is the process of removing impurities from a liquid by passing it through a sieve. Examples include filtering olive oil to remove any small pieces of the fruit or filtering wine to remove any sediments.
Vacuum sealing removes the air from a package of food to preserve shelf life and to keep bacteria out.
Fermentation is controlled microbial growth. It uses naturally occurring or introduced yeasts or bacteria to manipulate a food via enzymatic activity often making the food more shelf stable, the nutrients more bioavailable, and the flavor more interesting and enjoyable. Examples include sourdough bread, yogurt, wine and beer, sauerkraut, cheese, salamis, and more.
Milling separates the different pieces of a kernel of grain and grinds the grain into the fine powder we know as flour. A wheat grain has three main elements: a germ (the embryo that would grow into a new plant), a starchy endosperm (which provides energy for the germ), and the bran (the protective coating around the germ and endosperm). The white flour we know today is made up of just the endosperm– this is how it is shelf stable. The germ has oils that, when crushed in a traditional stone mill, will turn rancid in a matter of days. This is why people used to mill their grains at home or at a local mill in small amounts. While our modern milling technology allows for a long shelf life, it also removes most of the nutrients from the wheat. In The Third Plate, Dan Miller explains that “While the bran and the germ represent less than 20 percent of a wheat kernel’s total weight, together they comprise 80 percent of its fiber and other nutrients.” Those other nutrients include vitamins and minerals, as well as flavor.
Blanching is a quick scalding in boiling water or steam, often used before a food is canned or frozen. Blanching helps some vegetables retain color and softens them for packing into canning jars or freezer bags. The use of high heat may destroy some of the water soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and the B vitamins.
Canning is used to increase food’s shelf life. The food is heated to kill the microorganisms that would cause spoilage and sealed in a jar or aluminum can. This heat usually destroys many of the water soluble vitamins.
Freezing is used to increase food’s shelf life. Interestingly, the nutrient content is completely preserved while being frozen. However, usually the food is blanched (see above) before it’s frozen.
Pasteurization is the process of heating liquid food such as milk or juice to destroy bacteria. We believe this process does affect the nutrition of milk and may be linked to dairy allergies and intolerance. Properly handled raw milk does not require pasteurization to be safe. However, pasteurization is required to make factory-farmed milk safe to drink due to the high risk of harmful bacteria getting into the milk.
Dehydration involves removing moisture from food to dry it out. Less moisture helps slow down microbial activity. This concentrates nutrients such as sugar and calories but can also destroy certain nutrients such as vitamin C.
Cooking generally means applying heat to food (on a stove, in an oven, through boiling or steaming, or over an open fire). It also implies the preparation of peeling, chopping, assembling, and more. Nutrient quality of our food is impacted by the way we prepare our food. For example, many of the nutrients found in veggies and fruits are near the skin. If we peel the skin of our veggies, we lose many of the benefits. Cooking can also make many of the nutrients in food more available for our bodies or make food safer to eat (like cooking raw meat).
What are some examples of industrial food processing?
The ultra processed foods that we try to avoid go through intense industrial processes that almost always reduce the nutritional value of the food. These processes usually require a lot of energy and high-tech equipment and usually serve the purpose of making something unappealing look or taste better. Basically, these are high-tech trickery.
Some of these processes include:
Hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen to cheap liquid fats to make the fats solid at room temperature.
Fractionation is the extreme purification of food into its most simple form. For example, a beet is fractionated to powdered sugar, and legumes are fractionated into vegan protein powder. This process is damaging because our bodies evolved to eat plants and animals in their whole forms not artificially divided into components of sugar and protein. Not only is this detrimental to our ability to digest these foods, but this process requires a ton of energy which is harmful to our environment.
Extreme Heat and Pressure
Extreme Heat and Pressure are used to extract oil from seeds and beans that destroy most nutrients and create toxic byproducts in vegetable oils.
Deodorizing is used to remove the stink from the vegetable oils (one of many reasons to avoid seed oils!).
Bleaching is applied to remove the filthy murky color seen in the early production of vegetable oils.
Extrusion is the industrial process that uses a screw or multiple screws to force food through a tiny opening thus exposing the food to high pressure, temperature and shearing (tearing) forces. Some examples include cereal, pasta, candies, shells, bread crumbs, snacks, etc. It’s not hard to imagine what happens to the nutrient content.
Hydrolysis the use of water and acid (HCL) to break down the bonds between amino acids that make up the protein. Typically used to make the protein more digestible (reduce side effects such as bloating and gas), hydrolysis may have some benefits, but several essential amino acids such as tryptophan, cysteine, and methionine are destroyed in the process.
Are ultra processed foods really that bad?
Yes! Dietary risks are correlated with more premature death than cigarette smoking. There have been no studies that have shown a positive link between ultra processed foods and good health outcomes. And there are MANY studies that show the ingredients in these foods and diets high in these foods result in a lower quality of health. The food we eat is the raw material for our bodies’ functions, so if we put in low quality, adulterated material, our bodies are going to have a hard time functioning in the way that they need to.
Processed food is ubiquitous. It’s cheap, convenient, and addicting. In today’s fast paced world, most of us and our children will inevitably consume processed foods. Unfortunately, processed foods are strongly linked to most modern diseases such as obesity, metabolic dysfunction, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and dementia to list a few.
Because of the widespread prevalence of ultra processed foods and the successful marketing of the companies making them, over a half (57.5%!) of Americans’ caloric intake is processed foods. This has led to a whopping 71% of Americans being overweight!
In addition to these foods being cheap and everywhere, they are addictive! Ingredients such as sugar, natural flavors, salt, low calorie sweeteners, and artificial colors are carefully engineered to have us and our children coming back for more. When we consume this type of “food” we miss out on eating nutrient dense superhero foods! That is, we get all the calories but little to no nutrition, so we are always hungry despite eating a lot. It is not about calorie counting. Good foods give us the nutrients our bodies need to feel satisfied, allowing us to eat as much as we need without overdoing it.
Ultra processed foods also affect our mental health, especially children’s. Processed foods have been linked to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and they strongly impair kids’ ability to focus and learn. There are even studies linking processed foods to ADHD and other attention disorders.
How to recognize ultra processed food
To determine if a food is ultra processed, use your senses, read the label, and think critically. Often, it’s pretty obvious, but there are some gray areas and there is quite a bit of misleading marketing.
Here are some questions you can ask to help you decide whether a food is too processed for you:
Is it boxed, bagged, wrapped, jarred, or canned? If yes, it has undergone some level of processing.
Does it have more than 3-7 ingredients? More ingredients usually means more processing.
Read the label. Are there words you can’t pronounce or understand? Or words that make it sound like a science experiment? If so, it is likely highly processed. We like foods that don’t need labels like meat, veggies, and fruit.
If you had the recipe, could you make it at home? Many ultra processed foods require puffed grains, natural flavors, machines, and all sorts of processes that aren’t possible in a home kitchen. If yes, how much better would your version be?
Food labels can be misleading!
Watch out for statements such as “Cholesterol free,” “High in protein,” “All natural,” “Vegan,” “Non-GMO,” “Heart Healthy,” “No trans fat,” “Plant-based,” and “Whole Grain.” The claim may be true (but the product is still unhealthy), partially true, or not true at all! Do not be fooled by these marketing ploys!
Big Food has learned how to use health buzzwords on their packaging to make us think the product is healthy and discourage us from taking a closer look at the ingredients.
A product can be “Vegan,” for example, but still contain a ton of artificial sweeteners. A product can be “Whole Grain” but full of trans fats. One of our favorite claims can be found on a box of Lucky Charms, which, according to General Mills, contains “11 essential vitamins and minerals.” This is comical, since these vitamins and minerals are barely bioavailable (can’t be used by the body).
We often see the “heart healthy” claim plastered on seed oil containers, but new data clearly links seed oils with heart disease—the complete opposite! Seed oils also lead to major health problems such as metabolic dysfunction, diabetes, obesity, fatigue, brain fog, cancer, and more. This is an example of just how egregiously mislabeled food products can be!
The FDA doesn’t regulate many false claims that companies make. Big Food can claim there is “no trans fat” in their product if it contains less than 0.5 grams. You may think that a product has “no artificial sweeteners,” but very small amounts of these sweeteners (some up to 1000x more sweet than sugar) still can be present in the food without being required by the FDA to state it on the label.
Where you find food is another clue
Ultra processed food is found at fast food places, most restaurants, and convenience stores. In the grocery store, a rule of thumb is anything that is found in the middle of a grocery store is likely processed. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and meats usually require refrigeration or freezing and are usually placed along the outer walls of the store
To avoid or minimize ultra processed foods:
- Cook! Cook! Cook some more! The benefits of cooking deserve a whole book in itself!
- Look for fewer ingredients and whole ingredients.
- Choose foods your grandparents or great grandparents would have eaten: simple, whole ingredients.
- Avoid ADDED sugar.
- Avoid products with artificial ingredients, colors, or dyes.
- Avoid products with ingredients that you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce.
- If it seems too good to be true it probably is. You can’t make a soy burger taste like a hamburger without some heavy food processing.
- Quality matters: choose organic when possible (avoid glyphosate exposure); choose grass fed meat over conventional; look for high quality salt rather than iodized table salt; and so on.
My SuperHero Foods Processed Food Score: 1–4
1: Whole foods
- single ingredient foods
- ancestral foods (foods that our grandparents ate)
- can often be eaten raw or with simple preparation
2. Minimally processed.
- 2-3 ingredients
- single-ingredient whole foods with minimal preparation
- Slightly altered for preservation (canning, roasting, salting, pasteurizing, filtering, fermenting, drying, etc)
3. Moderately Processed food
- 3-7 ingredients
- more energy and equipment used to process
- Ingredients are recognizable and often made up of other whole foods
4: Ultra processed
- Many ingredients (more than 7)
- Ingredients are not typically found in the home
- weird Ingredients you can’t pronounce or recognize
- Extremely altered for taste and looks
- Have the following ingredients:
- refined grains, additives to cover up a certain smell or taste, added sugar, maltodextrin, preservatives: nitrites, artificial flavors, hydrolyzed proteins, natural flavors, artificial colors, hydrogenated oils
Aim for moderation and remember the big picture
We try not to demonize any foods. That’s why we advocate for a healthy mindset around sugar rather than cutting out all sugar. Similarly, we don’t think militantly denying all ultra processed foods is the best path. We suggest trying to minimize the ultra processed foods you and your kids eat, but if your kids have Doritos at a party every once in a while or you grab fast food for an easy dinner, don’t be hard on yourself!
Nutrition is about the majority of your choices over the long run. Joy and pleasure and social connection matter to our health too. Getting super worked up about ultra processed foods can be stressful for you as a parent and for your kids. Eat less processed foods as much as you can, and let go of judgements when you or your kids do eat frozen meals or cookies. Stressing out about it doesn’t make it any better– it just makes you stressed!
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