Modern-day addiction to ultra-processed food poses range of health risks
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If, as the old saying goes, we are what we eat, then we’re some combination of emulsifiers, gums, modified starch, high-fructose corn syrup, palm oil, invert sugars, hydrolysed protein isolates and various other additives and flavourings, just to name a few.
And that ultra-processed food (UPF), writes British infectious diseases doctor, university professor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken, is not good for individual health or for society in general.
Most studies on UPF consumption focus on obesity, he states, but there is evidence that increased intake is strongly associated with increased risk of other health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
“Almost every food that comes with a health claim on the packet is a UPF,” he writes in Ultra-Processed People.
Over millions of years, human bodies have adapted to using a wide range of food to provide needed energy, but “over the past 150 years food has become… not food,” van Tulleken writes.
Those substances entered the human diet gradually beginning in the last part of the 19th century, but gained pace from the 1950s on so that they now constitute the majority of what people in the U.K. and U.S. eat, and form a significant part of the diet of nearly every society on Earth, the author says.
He adds that UPF makes up as much as 60 per cent of the average diet in the U.K. and U.S., the two nations where most of the research he cites comes from, but “If you are reading this in Australia, Canada, the U.K. or the U.S.A., this is your national diet.”
As well as the actual physical processing of food, UPF includes indirect processes such as deceptive marketing, bogus court cases, secret lobbying and fraudulent research, van Telleken writes. It also is the leading cause of declining biodiversity and second-largest contributor to global emissions, causing a pandemic of climate change, malnutrition and obesity.
Food items such as pie, fried chicken, pizza, butter, pancake mix, pastries gravy and mayonnaise all began as real food, van Telleken reminds us. “But the non-UPF versions are expensive, so their traditional ingredients are often replaced with cheap, sometimes entirely synthetic, alternatives.”
So, one might ask, why do people continue to eat UPF in such alarming quantities? Well, for one thing it tastes good and feels good in the mouth. They are usually packaged foods, so it is convenient for busy people to just heat them up, and UPF is cheap so poverty is a risk factor in their consumption. He says UPF can be thought of as an addictive substance that “hacks our brains” by disrupting our bodies’ self-regulating systems that tell us when to eat more or less. That causes people to eat more delicious food than they need, thus gaining weight.
Obesity is a recognized health problem in modern society, and the blame is usually directed at the patient, citing lack of willpower and/or gluttony, but it is the result of environment and genetics. UPF consumption just exacerbates the problem.
Van Tulleken covers a lot of medical research in a bright, easy manner, with occasional droll asides, such as: “It is a source of constant amazement to public health doctors that you can buy a cold Coke almost anywhere on Earth but keeping a vaccine cool enough to get it from a factory to a child is a huge problem.”
The solution to the problem is stronger government regulations on food processing, something unlikely to happen anytime soon. And while van Tulleken wears his advocacy on his sleeve, Ultra-Processed People is an informed warning to readers about what they find on grocery store shelves or restaurant menus.
Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.
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