Ultra-processed foods have become a significant part of our diet in recent years, but what exactly do we mean by "ultra-processed"? What is it costing us to have this convenience? The term refers to foods that have undergone a series of industrial processes that alter the original food product beyond recognition. These foods are often formulated to be highly palatable, high in added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats, and lack essential nutrients found in unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
The concept of ultra-processed foods was first introduced by the NOVA food classification system, which categorizes foods based on the extent and purpose of their industrial processing. According to this system, ultra-processed foods have been heavily processed and contain several ingredients, including additives and artificial substances. Examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, pre-made sauces, imitation meat products, instant noodles, hydrogenated oils, and breakfast cereals, are only a few examples.
One of the main concerns with ultra-processed foods is their high caloric density, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity. These foods are often high in added sugars and unhealthy fats and lack the fiber and other nutrients found in unprocessed or minimally processed foods. In addition to weight gain, a diet high in ultra-processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, mental health and certain cancers.
A recent study by F. Wang and co. found that unhealthy plant-based diets (high in processed foods, sugar and saturated fats) are associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer (CRC). Conversely, healthy plant-based diets (high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) are associated with a decreased risk of CRC, especially in KRAS-wildtype CRC. The study suggests that the type of plant-based diet, rather than the exclusion of animal-based products, maybe more critical in relation to CRC risk.
Another Eric M Hecht study found a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and adverse mental health symptoms. The study, which used data from an extensive cross-sectional survey in France, found that individuals who consumed a higher proportion of ultra-processed foods in their diet reported higher levels of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress compared to those who consumed a lower proportion of ultra-processed foods. The study suggests that reducing ultra-processed food consumption may positively impact mental health.
A recent study by Fanny Petermann-Rocha and co. found that regardless of whether someone's diet included meat or not, the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease was associated with diets that meet nutritional guidelines, such as meeting overall protein, fibre and micronutrient requirements. Conversely, vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets that consumed more processed and less nutritious food, such as processed meat replacements or highly processed meat products, i.e. bacon, cold meats etc., had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Ultra-processed foods also have a significant environmental impact. The industrial processes used to create these foods require large amounts of energy and water and generate substantial amounts of waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, many ultra-processed foods are packaged in single-use plastics, contributing to environmental pollution.
A recent report by the Environmental Working Group, titled "Ultra-Processed Foods and the Environment", discusses the environmental impacts of the production and disposal of ultra-processed foods, including their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and plastic waste. Another report by the World Wildlife Fund, titled "The environmental impact of ultra-processed foods" also provides an overview of the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods, including their impact on climate change, water resources, biodiversity, and deforestation.
Despite the potential health and environmental risks associated with ultra-processed foods, they continue to be a major part of our diet. In fact, a study conducted in the United States found that, on average, more than 60% of the calories consumed by adults come from ultra-processed foods. People often like ultra-processed foods because they are convenient, tasty, affordable, and heavily marketed. Their palatability, long shelf-life and easy access can contribute to their popularity.
It is essential to reduce the amount of ultra-procced food in our diet, to do so, it's crucial to make more conscious food choices. This can include choosing whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cooking meals at home using fresh ingredients. It also means being mindful of the ingredients in the processed foods we do consume and choosing products with minimal added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats.
It's also important to recognize that ultra-processed foods are often marketed as convenient and easy options. Still, with a bit of planning and preparation, it is possible to make healthy, whole food-based meals that are just as convenient.
Syndian offers a selection of wholefoods and minimally processed options that make it easy to improve health and reduce environmental impact. By choosing Syndian, individuals can decrease their consumption of ultra-processed foods and increase the amount of nutritious options in their diet.