It’s cheap, convenient, and tasty but an over abundance of ultraprocessed food (UPF) could be contributing to weight and health problems. This in-depth analysis goes into what ultraprocessed foods are and how to achieve balance. Because there is so much misunderstanding about food processing it’s important to understand the subtle differences and why a bag of sugar may be better for you than a bag of sugar filled ultraprocessed food.
Much of the research around ultraprocessed food comes from Brazil where food guidelines now incorporate food processing categories. According to this article, Brazil is now treating food processing as the most important issue in public health.
The point of course is not to demonize or cut out all ultraprocessed foods, but to understand the issue and the importance of including other non-ultraprocessed foods in your life.
Evidence now suggests that diets heavy in UPFs can cause overeating and obesity. Consumers may blame themselves for overindulging in these foods, but what if it is in the nature of these products to be overeaten?
“Processed food” is a blurry term and for years, the food industry has exploited these blurred lines as a way to defend its additive-laden products. Unless you grow, forage or catch all your own food, almost everything you consume has been processed to some extent. A pint of milk is pasteurised, a pea may be frozen. Cooking is a process. Fermentation is a process. Artisanal, organic kimchi is a processed food, and so is the finest French goat’s cheese. No big deal.
But UPFs are different. They are processed in ways that go far beyond cooking or fermentation, and they may also come plastered with health claims. Even a sugary multi-coloured breakfast cereal may state that it is “a good source of fibre” and “made with whole grains”. Bettina Elias Siegel, the author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, says that in the US, people tend to categorise food in a binary way. There is “junk food” and then there is everything else. For Siegel, “ultra-processed” is a helpful tool for showing new parents that “there’s a huge difference between a cooked carrot and a bag of industrially produced, carrot-flavoured veggie puffs” aimed at toddlers, even if those veggie puffs are cynically marketed as “natural”.