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What does “Ultra Processed” mean and why is it considered so bad?

It’s no secret that we all love indulging in delicious snacks and convenience foods from time to time– especially when bingeing a new show– but have you ever wondered what's really lurking inside those tasty snacks? These snacks, often labeled as "ultra-processed," have become staples in most households, but how good for you are they really? Read on to explore what “ultra-processed” really means, why it’s bad for you, and how you can make healthier choices on your next supermarket run!

What is “Ultra Processed”?

So, to kick us off, we should probably answer what exactly qualifies a food as "ultra-processed"? For starters, almost all your favorite snacks and breakfast cereals – muffins, snack bars, sweetened yogurts, soft drinks, and energy drinks– are all examples of foods that fall under the category of "ultra-processed." Essentially, they're products that undergo extensive industrial processing, containing additives, fillers, preservatives, or fortifications. They're designed to be incredibly appealing, easy to overeat, and can even trigger strong cravings, thanks to their hyper-palatable nature.

Generally, there are four ways in which we categorize foods:

1. Unprocessed foods

Example: fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds. Things that have no added ingredients and haven’t really been altered from their natural state.

2. Processed ingredients.

Example: salt, sugar, oils. These are foods that have to be altered in some way from their natural state (i.e. pressing olives to make olive oil).

3. Processed foods.

Example: pickles, tinned fruit, jam, homemade bread, popped sorghum. These are foods that are made by combining foods from groups 1 and 2.

4. Ultra-processed foods.

Example: ice cream, sausages, cereals, flavored yogurts, instant soups. These are foods that have five or more ingredients, and include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, for example: preservatives, sweeteners, and artificial flavors and colors. These foods typically have a long shelf life.

Why “Ultra-Processed” Is Considered Bad

Now, let's get to the heart of the matter – why are ultra-processed foods bad for you? Numerous large-scale studies have shown that these foods are linked to a range of health issues, including obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and even colon cancer. Shockingly, one study found that people who consumed a lot of ultra-processed foods had a 19 percent higher risk of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who consumed fewer of these foods. Here’s a list of some not-so-great side effects of eating ultra-processed foods:

  • Obesity: Ultra-processed foods are a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. Their easy-to-overeat nature and high-calorie content can lead to weight gain and obesity.
  • Heart Disease: Regular consumption of these foods is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. They often contain unhealthy fats, excessive sodium, and artificial additives that can harm your cardiovascular system.
  • Hypertension: The high salt content in many ultra-processed foods can raise blood pressure levels, increasing the risk of hypertension, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Ultra-processed foods can lead to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels, increasing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Colon Cancer: Some studies have shown a connection between a diet rich in ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of colon cancer. The additives and processing methods may play a role in this association.
  • Early Mortality: Perhaps the most concerning of all, consuming a lot of ultra-processed foods has been linked to a 19 percent higher likelihood of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease.

What You Should Eat Instead

Given the potential risks, you might be wondering what you should eat instead of ultra-processed foods. Fortunately, there are healthier alternatives to satisfy your taste buds. The simplest approach is to choose fewer prepared and packaged foods and consume more whole and minimally processed foods.

  • Opt for plain yogurt and add fresh berries and honey instead of sweetened fruit yogurts.
  • Instead of frozen chicken nuggets, try making homemade baked nuggets – they're not much more time-consuming.
  • Consider swapping sugary sodas and sports drinks with healthier options like sparkling water with lemon or lime, unsweetened teas, and plain water infused with real fruit.
  • Eat some snacks with superfood ingredients like popped sorghum instead of overly processed alternative corn-based snacks like chip and puffs.
  • When you do opt for convenience, check labels and choose products with fewer ingredients, as they are generally less processed. You can even use resources like the truefood.tech website to identify the least processed versions of your favorite foods, based on additives and processing methods.

Ultimately, the shift away from ultra-processed foods towards whole, less processed options can lead to better health outcomes. While it might take some time for everyone to change their eating habits, a growing awareness of the negative impact of ultra-processed foods on our health could drive the food industry to produce healthier, minimally processed alternatives in the future. Remember, small changes in your diet can lead to significant improvements in your overall well-being.



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