What does ultra-processed food do to your body?

·6 min read

A study led by London’s Imperial College, and published in JAMA Paediatrics, has reinforced a fact that has been known for long – the higher the proportion of ultra-processed food (UPF) consumed during childhood, the greater the risk of weight issues in adulthood.

The study, in which data was taken on the consumption of ultra-processed food by British children over a number of years, found that in a child's diet, more than 40 per cent of the intake in grams and more than 60 per cent of calories on an average, comes from ultra-processed foods.

assorted junk food
assorted junk food

Further, eating patterns established during childhood could extend to adulthood as well, increasing the risk of developing a number of mental and physical health problems later on.

In India, the market for ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages is expected to rise to 17 million by 2025. And, according to experts, the only way to limit this, would be to ensure that food labels contain accurate information on salt, sugar and fat content.

The NOVA classification of foods

To eat a healthy and balanced diet, we need to know what goes into our food. Unless we are eating directly from a plant or consuming milk off a cow, a large majority of the food items we consume are processed through various methods such as pasteurising, heating, canning, drying or by the addition of certain preservatives to make it palatable, ready to eat and last longer. However, there is a vast difference between food that is processed and food that is ultra-processed.

The concept of ultra-processed food was developed by Brazilian nutritional researchers Carlos Monteiro and his team at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (NUPENS) at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

The team uses the NOVA classification of food to categorise food into four types based on their nature, extent and purpose of food processing.

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed food: Unprocessed food is the edible parts of the flower, plant or animal we eat. These include fruits, seeds that have not been processed, edible fungi and algae, egg, spring and tap water.
    Minimally processed foods are whole foods that have been minimally altered to make them suitable for consumption. Packaged almonds, packaged milk, oats, fresh fruit juice, frozen or dried vegetables, flour made from wheat, corn, oats, etc herbs and spices such as pepper, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, mint, tea, coffee powder, etc are all examples of minimally processed foods.
    This group also includes a combination of one or more ingredients such as dried fruits and nuts mix, pasta and couscous made from flours.

  • Processed industrial ingredients: This group includes culinary ingredients derived from group 1 or from nature, using processes such as grinding, pressing, refining, milling and drying.
    These are energy-dense and unbalanced when consumed in isolation, as most of their nutrients would have been lost in the processing step. However, as they are rarely consumed on their own and are used to make whole dishes, they should be assessed in combination with the food they are used in.
    Examples of processed industrial ingredients are vegetable oils, butter, sugar, salt, starch, etc.

  • Processed foods: These foods are made when ingredients from group 2 are added to food items from group 1. These include canned fruits in sugar syrup, freshly baked bread, simple cheeses, tinned fish preserved in oil, canned legumes, salted or sugared nuts and seeds and certain types of processed meat.
    Here, the food products are processed to increase their shelf lives and make them more palatable. These products may be nutritious when the ingredients added are in the right quantities, however, can be unbalanced if excessive salt, sugar or oil is added to them.

  • Ultra-processed foods: The unhealthiest of all, ultra-processed foods are often cheap and convenient, hence, popular. These are made from ingredients that are mostly of exclusive industrial use. These include products such as carbonated soft drinks, mass-produced bread and buns, cookies, pastries, sweetened breakfast cereals, pre-prepared pasta and pizza dishes, powdered instant soups and noodles, baby formula.

Why are UPFs unhealthy?

In the preparation of ultra-processed food, whole foods are usually fractioned into substances and the chemical modification of these substances are made. Industrial techniques such as extraction, moulding, milling, etc are used to process these food items.

These foods typically contain very little or no natural, whole foods. They contain substances included in processed food such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilisers, along with some substances found only in ultra-processed products, including those that are used to imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods.

These include dyes, flavours and flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners, emulsifiers, anti-caking and anti-glazing agents, among others.

Ultra-processed foods are linked to a multitude of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and heart diseases, depression, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal disorders. 

In a study, researchers who tracked the eating habits of 1,04,980 adults for five years found out that those who consumed ultra-processed foods during the time period were more likely to get some form of cancer. This risk was calculated based on the average number of servings per day. For each 10 per cent increase in UPFs, there was a corresponding 12 per cent in overall cancer risk.

How to make a smarter choice

Healthy Eating, Unhealthy Eating, Apple - Fruit
Healthy Eating, Unhealthy Eating, Apple - Fruit

It's convenient to just grab all the ready to eat packages from the supermarket’s shelf, however, by being a conscious shopper and eater, you can ensure you have a balanced, nutritious diet. Here are some tips to follow while shopping for food, cooking and eating it:

Cook at home: As much as possible, cook at home using fresh, whole ingredients from Groups 1 and 2 of the Nova group. It is healthier, cost-effective and the easiest way in which you can reduce your intake of UPFs.

Plan ahead: This ensures that you do not wander around a supermarket aimlessly, giving in to the temptation of buying packaged, ultra-processed food.

Read nutrition labels: Be aware of the salt, sugar, fat content in the food you eat. Also, ensure that you read the nutrition labels to avoid being misled into false health and nutrition claims. A packet of wholewheat rusk may be loaded with sugar and contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. Also, be wary of foods that contain a long list of ingredients.

Breastfeed: Research has proven that infants who are breastfed until the age of six months, exclusively, consume fewer UPFs and sweetened beverages in childhood and as they grow up.

Be a smart eater: If you wish to eat out, ensure you choose healthier dishes with whole grains and vegetables, keeping the oily starters and deserts to the minimum.

Moderation is the mantra: Eat processed food if you wish to, but in moderation. Check the nutrition labels of all food you eat to ensure that you do not cross your daily intake limit.

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