The truth about ultraprocessed foods may be ultracomplicated

“360” shows you different perspectives on the top stories and conversations of the day.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News;  photos: Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.

What is happening

For decades, the question of whether food is healthy or not has largely focused on what it contains: does it have a lot of fiber and vitamins? Is there too much fat, salt or sugar?

But recently, many experts have come to believe that the preparation of our food may be just as important as what it is made from. In this updated way of looking at dietary health, a new villain has emerged: .

Although there is no general definition, ultra-processed foods to foods that have been heavily modified and often contain additives such as preservatives, artificial flavors and sweeteners. The term was first recommended by a in 2009, who argued that nutrition systems that look only at food composition, such as the food pyramid, ignore critical differences in how different foods end up on our plates.

Because so much of what we eat has been modified in some way, there can be a huge variety of foods . Most “junk” foods (such as sweets and chips) fit comfortably into this category, but so do many items that may not be considered clearly unhealthy by the average consumer – including flavored yogurts, plant-based milks, and most bread found at the address. from the supermarket. One study estimated that almost comes from ultra-processed foods.

Why is there a discussion?

A growing number of studies show that diets high in ultra-processed foods are associated with a wide range of health problems, including various , , and even . However, the challenge is to determine whether these problems can be directly attributed to the way the food is produced or whether they can be caused by other factors.

Several They say there is enough evidence to suggest that ultra-processed foods are unhealthier, even when compared to foods with exactly the same nutrient composition. They claim that these products are specifically designed to trigger reactions in our brains that promote overeating and often contain a host of artificial ingredients that have effects on the body that we don’t yet fully understand.

But critics of this approach argue that these studies only confirm what we’ve known for decades: that diets high in fat, sugar and salt — which are usually high in ultra-processed foods — are unhealthy. There is also concern that too much talk about the dangers of ultra-processed foods may lead people to avoid generally healthy foods that happen to fit into this category, such as meat alternatives, various breads, and even infant formula.

Another source of debate is what should be done with ultra-processed foods if they are considered unsafe. Many experts say the main reason they’re so ubiquitous is that they’re cheaper and more convenient than whole foods. They argue that sweeping changes to our food system are needed to ensure that everyone, not just people with a lot of time and money, can eliminate these unhealthy items from their diet.

What next

Currently, the US government’s official dietary guidelines do not address ultra-processed foods. But the experts are whether the question should be included in the next updated recommendations due to be published in 2025.


Ultra-processed foods are literally killing people

“Four of the top six killers are related to inadequate diet, which in the United States is likely due in large part to the convenient, safe, and cheap food we eat too much of.” – Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition research at Stanford University

What’s important is what’s in the food, not how it’s prepared

“If the problem with ultra-processed foods turns out to be, for example, their sugar and salt content, then the problem would be sugar and salt, not whether we bought a hamburger from a fast food restaurant… or whether we made our own hamburger. at home.” – Beth Skwarecki,

Many ultra-processed foods are not actually food at all

“I was pretty sure junk food was bad. That didn’t stop me from eating it though. Learning about UPF is a different experience – you start to realize that some of these substances are hardly food.” – Helen Lewis,

Many healthy products are mixed with junk food in such broad categories

“Even after more than a decade, there is no single common definition. …This lack of clarity has consequences: consumers have started to be wary of all processed food and are starting to avoid frozen and canned foods, even though they are an affordable and healthy alternative to fresh produce. – Gunter Kuhnle,

All we know for sure is that obviously unhealthy food should be avoided

“It’s a science-backed move to avoid fully sweetened beverages and obvious junk food. It’s also probably not great if most of your diet is ultra-processed, even if you choose relatively healthy versions of those foods. Beyond that, the data is muddy.” – Tim Requarth,

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