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The dangers of processed foods

Functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, MDYou have most likely heard of the words “processed food” before, but what exactly makes something you’re consuming “processed?” The extent to which a food is processed can be classified into four groups through the NOVA scale, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The NOVA classification system measures how much a food or beverage has been altered during the time of preparation before going into the hands of the consumers.

The first group consists of minimally processed or unprocessed foods. This includes fruits, eggs, milk, and any “natural” foods. Group 2 are processed culinary ingredients, such as oil, sugar, and salt that need to be refined or pressed to make the final product.

Combining foods from group 1 and 2 create the foods that make up group 3: processed foods. Canned fish and bottled vegetables both mainly use foods from group 1, but go through more processing with oils, sugar, etc.

Finally, ultra-processed foods are classified into the fourth category. As the name suggests, the ones that make it into this group have gone through processes that would label it into group 3, but have even more additions and processing to the product. Unlike group 3 where ingredients from groups 1 and 2 are simply combined, ultra-processed foods go even further.

Ingredients from Group 2 will go through more alterations, resulting in products like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. Additives like preservatives, stabilizers, color dyes, and flavor enhancers are also added to make the food have better sensory appeal. The results of these extensive processes include the sugary drinks and assortment of sweets and chips that fill up grocery aisles with their packages printed with a never-ending list of ingredients, half of which you’ve probably never seen or can’t pronounce.

For many years, the United States has been the country with the highest volume per capita for ultra-processed food and beverages.

According to a study done by Northwestern Medicine examining such packaged products in the U.S. in 2018, “scientists analyzed 230,156 products and, using the NOVA classification system, found 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks and more were ultra-processed. Among the top 25 manufacturers by sales volume, 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.”

These figures don’t come as a surprise when you think of how the standard American diet is portrayed with burgers, french fries, donuts, and other high-calorie items.

Although not just limited to such foods, a diet filled with refined grains and high amounts of sodium is very much present in current times, and so are the health consequences that come with it.

To put it into perspective, in 2020, U.S. adult obesity rates were at 42.4% which is a 26% increase from 2008, according to Trust for America’s Health.

Such startling numbers are only going to continue to grow if the urgency of this problem isn’t addressed. Americans should be aware of and limit their consumption of ultra-processed foods.

The additives commonly found in processed foods can be extremely harmful to our health. Refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup are contributing to rising obesity rates in the U.S., trans and saturated fats put individuals at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, and some artificial food colors are linked to behavioral changes in children, 

The U.S. obesity epidemic is becoming more widespread as the years pass, and a large contributing factor of the increasing numbers is the high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars packed into so many processed foods and beverages.

It is not an exaggeration to say that these sweeteners are in almost every processed product we’re consuming. According to a Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials article, “high-fructose corn syrup represents more than 40% of the caloric sweeteners that are added to our foods and beverages.” 

Functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, MD told Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials “sugar is hidden in over 80% of the 600,000 processed foods on the market.”

Even if one were to look for the word “sugar” in the ingredients list of a processed food item, it may be hidden in plain sight through maltodextrin, malt syrup, any words that end with “-ose”, and the list goes on.

This is especially so with sugary soft drinks and packaged sweets. Now knowing the magnitude of the situation, how do all of these sugars link to rising obesity rates?

An article in the Polish journal of food and nutrition sciences states, “The increase in total sugar consumption and, in particular, HFCS, roughly paralleled the increase in obesity in the United States … with individual sugar consumption at levels over twice the recommended levels by the American Heart Association of 36 g/day for men and triple the recommended dose 20 g/day for women.”

Obesity is not caused by one sole factor but a multitude of factors, including the amount of physical activity, food consumption, genetics, and more.

However, studies have shown that sugar intake has a direct connection to body weight. In trials done by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, children were given either non-calorically sweetened drinks or sugar-sweetened ones.

Compared to the group without sugar sweeteners, the latter group saw weight gain and higher BMIs (“Sugars and Obesity”). Even if the direct causes of obesity may not always be clear cut, the fact that increased added sugar intake has been attributed to weight gain makes it evident that the increasing numbers of ultra-processed food consumption and obesity rates alike are no coincidence.

Aside from the copious amounts of sugar that can be found within  ultra-processed foods are also saturated and trans fats, which, if consumed at excessive amounts will put an individual at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Trans fat, or trans fatty acids, are usually found when partially hydrogenated oils are added to foods.

Saturated fats come mainly from animal sources or dairy products high in fat, such as lard and butter. Of these two fats, trans fats are by far the worst of the two and should be avoided; although, saturated fats should be limited as well. This is because they both lead to a rise in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which is considered “bad” cholesterol.

Going even further, trans fats have also shown to decrease levels of “good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, according to Healthline. Think of french fries, pastries, ice cream, and microwave popcorn.

All of these foods that we always seem to crave have either trans fats, high amounts of saturated fats, or both. A lot of these foods are commonly seen as “junk” foods and this is not without reason, especially in regards to trans fats.

An article published in the Wiley Online Library states, “replacing just 2% of energy that we obtain from [trans fatty acids] in our diet with energy from un‐hydrogenated unsaturated fats has been estimated to reduce the risk of coronary disease by 53%”.

The negative effects of this kind of processed fat on the human body are very serious. Trans fats not only raise bad cholesterol but lower good cholesterol.

Physiologically, it can lead to the build-up of fatty deposits in your arteries. This can become a health risk with consequences of heart attack or stroke when the fatty deposits break away and become blood clots, stopping blood flow, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Next time you plan to order large-size fries from McDonald’s or eat a donut, think about how it would affect your body and try to reduce the amount you consume. 

If the previously mentioned health concerns weren’t enough to convince you of the urgency of the problem surrounding ultra-processed foods, there is another common ingredient to bring into consideration: artificial food colors.

AFCs have had a long history of controversy regarding their safety, but even after many regulations and banning of some, some chemical food dyes present in foods today still show connections to causing behavioral changes in children.

In a 2012 article published in the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, three types of diets were given to children: a total elimination of AFCs called the K-P diet, taking out AFCs from the diet then putting them back in after some time, and an oligoantigenic diet (foods not likely to cause reactions from the body) then later adding natural and AFC-containing foods.

All of these diets showed results of decreased or increased hyperactivity to some degree based on the diet. In the K-P diet, a small group of previously hyperactive children had shown improvements in school and home settings.

For both the second and third diets, most of the studies found responses with notable behavioral changes and more hyperactivity. Such behavioral changes seen from the studies show that AFCs do play some role in potentially contributing to hyperactivity. In some cases, a child’s unruliness or difficulty to do well in school may in part come from what they’re eating.

In the same article, studies showed that “zinc changes from AFC challenge were associated with behavioral deterioration…This raises a question of what other nutrients may be wasted or otherwise interfered with by various AFCs. It also shows a possible mechanism for AFC to affect the brain without crossing the blood-brain barrier, given that Zn is essential for normal brain function.” 

Ultra-processed foods are very true to their name in that they go through heavy processing, and a part of this process is the addition of countless chemical agents, as seen in AFCs. These are what help create the addictive flavors, or in this case, the bright colors, but may also be a potential danger to our health.

Limiting how much ultra-processed foods and beverages we should be consuming is important, but one cannot deny that many people have limited access to “healthy” foods, and can only afford the cheap and convenient options.

Crops that are going to go through a lot of processing are much cheaper to churn out than ones like fresh produce because the processing can be done fully with machines rather than human labor. Subsidies from the U.S. government also play a part in the final costs as more go towards crops that are commonly seen in ultra-processed foods, like corn and wheat, according to Vox.

Convenience also plays a large factor in choosing the unhealthier options. Fast-food chains are practically everywhere in the U.S., making it easy to grab a quick meal for an equally convenient price.

For many, this is a much more suitable and time-saving option than buying individual ingredients and making something to eat. It might seem that having a healthy diet sometimes is out of a person’s control. However, it isn’t always as linear of a narrative as we might assume.

A Washington Post article described a study done where “consumers were asked to choose the healthier of two similar chicken wraps, and “when the ‘Roasted Chicken Wrap’ was priced at $8.95 versus a ‘Chicken Balsamic Wrap’ for $6.95, people chose roasted over balsamic. But when the prices were flipped, so were the choices. That is, people were actively choosing the more expensive option because they believed it was healthier.”

It is true that sometimes, trying to eat healthily can become an attack on your wallet. Even so, that is not to say that this rings true across all products. It is ultimately up to the consumer to read nutritional labels and make the choice of what to buy. 

Ultra-processed foods and beverages stand as an immense hindrance in improving the American people’s health. The endless kinds of additives like hydrogenated fats, chemical flavoring agents, added sugars, and so much more have us attracted initially, but make us regret it afterward.

This may be in the form of an immediate sugar crash or, in a more long-term setting, obesity and higher susceptibility to heart disease. While it is not likely that we’re all going to completely stop eating ultra-processed foods, we should still place limits on the frequency and amount consumed.

Physical health is not something to be looked over. Taking care of our diets is just as important to health as physical activity.