Make 2018 the year of real food
It’s the season to celebrate – December festivities bring a little too much to eat – but come January, it’ll be time to get back on track for a healthy 2018.
And there must be a better way than counting carbs, fats, calories and sodium.
The nutrient discussion isn’t just old and tiresome; it also shifts our attention away from what’s perhaps the most important attribute defining what’s good to eat.
What if it’s not the nutrients, not even the foods, so much as what’s done to these poor foods? What if processing is the main issue? What do I mean by what’s done to food? Let’s take cereal; it can be intact wheat in a wheat-berry salad, a 4-ingredient whole-wheat bread freshly baked, or a packaged breakfast cereal. Nutrients aside, the processing of these three types of cereal is very different. Does it matter? Nutrition research certainly suggests it does.
Public Health Nutrition will devote a whole special issue to the subject in the coming January.
All food is processed to some degree; even raw-food vegans and Paleo enthusiasts don’t graze in fields.
But foods range from minimally processed all the way to ultra-processed foods – foods made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little intact food.
Visit a supermarket in the US (or any other developed country), and you’ll find that ultra-processed foods dominate the shelves, especially the central aisles. Ultra-proceed foods are heavily marketed and dominate ads in old media and in social media. Fast food franchises are everywhere, and vending machines sell salty and sweet ultra-proceed stuff in every building, every corner. Ultra-processed foods now supply almost 60 percent of calories in the American diet.
What is highly processed food?
As mentioned above, all food is processed. It has been processed for hundreds of years. And some of the processing is not only tasty and convenient, it’s also important for safety and health. Drying, fermentation, cooling, freezing and pasteurization protect food from spoilage. On the other hand, adding sugar (as in sugary drinks and so many other foods), and partial hydrogenation (as in trans-fat) are clearly harmful.
NOVA is a widely used classification of food processing; its definition of highly processed food is an eye opener to those unfamiliar with modern food manufacturing:
“Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 (unprocessed or minimally processed) food.
Ingredients of these formulations usually include those also used in processed foods, such as sugars, oils, fats or salt. But ultra-processed products also include other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations. Some of these are directly extracted from foods, such as casein, lactose, whey and gluten. Many are derived from further processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Additives in ultra-processed foods include some also used in processed foods, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers. Classes of additives found only in ultra-processed products include those used to imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects of the final product. These additives include dyes and other colours, colour stabilizers; flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners; and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants.
A multitude of sequences of processes is used to combine the usually many ingredients and to create the final product (hence ‘ultra-processed’). The processes include several with no domestic equivalents, such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation, extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying.
The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create branded, convenient (durable, ready to consume), attractive (hyper-palatable) and highly profitable (low-cost ingredients) food products designed to displace all other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are usually packaged attractively and marketed intensively.”
What’s the harm?
Ultra-processed food has been associated with poor diet and obesity, as well as with hypertension and metabolic syndrome.
New research in this issue reinforces this point.
A review of 26 studies finds that eating ultra-processed food is associated with obesity in kids and teens. Another study finds that availability of ultra-proceed foods at home ranged from 10 percent in Portugal and 13 percent in Italy to about 50 percent in Germany and the UK. There was a significant positive association between household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity rates. A study from Lebanon looked at 302 adults’ diets, and found that those consuming the highest amount of ultra-processed diets had the highest rates of metabolic syndrome, high blood sugar and a risky lipid profile.
New year, new pantry
If you’re looking for an easy to follow, realistic, positive, healthy living goal for 2018, try eating real.
I’m not suggesting you make all your food from scratch. It would also be highly impractical to mill your own wheat, or press your own oil. Just try to avoid the highly-processed stuff.
And the best way to do that is to make it less available. Don’t keep it at home, in your car or your desk.
Make this the year in which you notice highly-processed food – it’s usually beautifully packaged, and often even has health claims on it, which is particularly confusing – and call it by name.
The booming alternative meat category is especially interesting. Getting to “I can’t believe this isn’t real meat”, takes, I suspect, a whole lot of processing.
I’ve been reading the definition above again and again; it really makes me look at sugary drinks, snacks and prepared meals in a whole different way.
Happy holidays, and a happy and healthy 2018!