Health Matters: Ultra processed foods lead to weighty problems

ESCANABA — How well do you eat? An associated question, how important is it to your health? Many would agree nutrition is a topic on which we have much to learn. Theories abound on how best to eat, and the plethora of diets developed in recent years is testament to this. How much do scientists know about the influence of nutrition on health? And then compare this to how much the general public knows about it!

A recent study in the prestigious British Medical Journal stated that sixty percent of the calories consumed by the average American comes from processed foods that are largely made up of artificial additives – like hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, emulsifiers – substances which have long names you wouldn’t recognize without a chemistry degree. In addition, the vast majority of the sugar we consume, ninety percent in fact, comes from these “ultra-processed foods”. A common recommendation from nutritionists is to simply eat……simpler! Consuming fewer hidden calories leads to a healthier body weight.

Ultra-processed food products are not made from real foods. They are made from ingredients, chemicals, like some mad scientist’s chemistry set. Some of these are derived from real foods, such as oils, fats, flours, starches, and sugar, but many are manufactured, obtained by extensive processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenated oils, hydrolyzed proteins, starch-modified sugars, and extruded or otherwise processed remnants of other substances. Bulk may come from air or water. Synthetic micronutrients may be added to ‘fortify’ the products. Don’t these sound delicious? They certainly aren’t found in nature.

Numerically, the great majority of the ingredients of ultra-processed “foods” are additives of some type, which include among others, preservatives; stabilizers, emulsifiers, solvents, binders, bulkers; sweeteners, sensory enhancers, flavors, and colors. These are manufactured ingredients, and would not be used when cooking from scratch. The function of many of these substances is to make the product look, smell, feel and taste like food.

The industrial processes utilized are all designed to create durable, accessible, convenient, attractive ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Many of them are ‘fast’ foods or convenience foods. They are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration (‘long shelf-life’), to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable, and often to be habit-forming.

Unfortunately, there is tremendous ignorance about the long-term effects of this ultra-processing. Conventional food classifications largely ignore food processing. Thus, there is a lack of evidence-based research into the health consequences of the kinds of food substances so many consume. A system to classify foods according to food processing still does not exist. Perhaps a new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of the industrial processing used in their production should be instituted.

So what is the effect on our health of food processing, as it is currently perpetrated? It would be an accurate statement to say that almost all the studies performed on nutrition and public health have overestimated the significance of nutrients and of foods as such, and has overlooked, even ignored, the significance of processing. A theory being proposed by many is that the principal driver of the pandemic of obesity, and of the related chronic, non-communicable diseases – such as diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome – is what we identify as ultra-processed products.

Only those Americans in the lowest percentage of ultra-processed food consumption met the recommended limits of added sugar intake (that ten percent number of calories). No prior study has assessed this, but it clearly established the relationship of ultra-processed foods and excessive added sugar intake. An additional question would be what effect these unnatural substances will have on the human body in the long run, over years of exposure. Many physicians are changing their “tune” about what is driving the epidemic of heart disease. These chemicals may be elevating inflammatory levels in the bloodstream, leading to plaque formation and clogging of the arteries. But this a whole other topic, one demanding further investigation.

Clearly, you need to read the labels carefully. A common piece of advice is, if the ingredient list looks like a recipe you could have made in your own kitchen, you probably will be fine. Limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods may be a highly effective way to decrease added sugars. A reduction in ultra-processed foods should also have the effect of increasing the intake of more healthful, minimally processed foods such as milk, fruits and nuts, and freshly prepared dishes based on whole grains and vegetables.

Making good food choices isn’t always the most convenient option. Grabbing a quick snack, one that needs no preparation, is usually easier, but how easy is it to develop diabetes or heart disease? The most common recommendation from knowledgeable physicians and scientists is to limit the amounts of ultra-processed foods you eat by focusing as much as possible on real, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If your grandparents ate it, then it’s probably going to be good for you as well. The giant food corporations won’t like it, but your doctor will.

— — —

Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with offices in Escanaba, Marquette, and L’Anse. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being board certified in surgery, orthotic therapy and wound care. His articles on health and wellness appear in multiple local and national publications. Dr. McLean welcomes subject requests for future articles at drcmclean@outlook.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today