The Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods: Navigating Health in the Age of Convenience

The Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods: Navigating Health in the Age of Convenience

Updated: Jun 24, 2024Veronika Larisova

In the modern era, our global food system has evolved dramatically. A significant shift has been the universal spread of ultra-processed foods (which is what we started Chief to fight against) and two recent scientific articles shed light on the devastating effects of ultra processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods have reshaped eating habits globally over the last 75 years, leading to adverse health outcomes at both individual and societal levels. They encompass a broad range of ready-to-eat products, including packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles, and ready-made meals.


What are Ultra Processed Foods?

Despite often being marketed as ‘health products’, these foods are primarily composed of chemically modified substances extracted from foods, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance, and durability, with minimal to no inclusion of whole foods.

They are hyper-palatable, high in calories (usually from refined carbohydrates and industrial fats) and low in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). They are convenient, easily accessible, and cheap. In fact, they're so incredibly cheap to make which means they can be priced so low and still give big food companies incredible profits which is why they're so prevalent. 

The main issue is that consumption of such foods has been normalised and most people in the Western world eat junk on daily basis as a result, without even thinking about it.


What's wrong with Ultra Processed Foods? Why should we avoid them?

Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods has contributed to the rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, PCOS and cardiovascular disease via changes in the gut microbiome, increased inflammation and malnutrition.

It’s shocking that 42-58% of energy intake in Australia comes from ultra-processed foods! Our obesity and overweight stats have been rising accordingly. Currently, 2 in 3 (67%) are living with overweight or obesity. This is approximately 12.5 million adults. 31% are living with obesity, and 12% are living with severe obesity.

The rise of ultra-processed foods is not only a health concern but also a sustainability issue. The industrial processes involved in their production have significant environmental footprints, contributing to biodiversity loss, climate change, and resource depletion.


Plant based alternatives are part of the issue

The transition towards these convenience foods has been accelerated by the commercial food industry's push towards plant-based alternatives. However, this "great plant transition" often involves even more ultra-processed products, lacking in essential nutrients while laden with harmful additives.

For example, plant-based meat alternatives, often made from soy protein isolate rich in isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen, raise concerns due to their potential adverse effects on development, reproduction, and mental health, particularly in males.

These products, including supermarket beef patties containing up to 30% textured soy protein, may contribute to hidden isoflavone consumption. Despite industry claims disputing the classification of these products as ultra-processed or soy isoflavones as endocrine disruptors, the impact of soy isoflavones on human health and remains under debate.

Additionally, the expansion of the plant-based beverage industry, with sales exceeding billions globally, introduces environmental and nutritional concerns. Furthermore, the nutrient deficiencies and high content of sugar and gut-damaging additives such as emulsifiers in plant based alternatives to milk, cheese and meat are concerning. 


What can be done about it?

Discussions from the Nova Network planetary health meeting on the "Future of Food" highlighted the need to rethink our food systems. The meeting emphasised the historical context of diets designed for planetary health, which advocated for whole foods and minimally processed foods (our entire range is based on whole foods and minimally processed). It also explored the impact of ultra-processed food technology in creating plant-based protein alternatives that may not align with health or environmental benefits.

The rise of ultra-processed foods has been linked to various health concerns, including changes in dietary patterns that affect lifelong health risks. Marketing strategies targeting young children have significant negative impacts on food preferences and consumption, contributing to the global burden of NCDs.

Moreover, the dietary patterns established in early life can lead to heritable epigenetic changes, further transmitting disease risk across generations.

Despite the challenges posed by ultra-processed foods, the articles suggest that solutions lie within cooperative efforts between individuals, communities, and the food industry.

Emphasising the consumption of whole, minimally processed foods and supporting sustainable food systems can mitigate our current dietary habits' health and environmental impacts.

 

Chief Note
Sometimes, it is hard to identify ultra-processed foods due to the misleading health claims on their packaging. You can recognise ultra-processed foods by becoming a pack flipper and reading the ingredient labels on packaged products. Download our free e-book, How to Read Food Labels, and learn to become your own food expert.

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References 

Ultra-processed food exposure and adverse health outcomes: umbrella review of epidemiological meta-analyses

Beyond Plants: The Ultra-Processing of Global Diets Is Harming the Health of People, Places, and Planet

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