Here at Psychology Fanatic, we understand—life is hectic. A typical household balances multiple careers, child care, and an ever-present onslaught of financial and emotional demands. The quicker and easier it is to feed our pack the better. We take shortcuts out of necessity, not laziness. A spouse relegated to the kitchen is no longer practical (or politically correct). I have taken over meal preparation duties in our house. While I rarely follow rigid rules for healthy eating, I do try to understand the basics, keeping meals packed with nutrients and low in harmful additives. I mainly accomplish this by limiting consumption of ultraprocessed foods.
Marketing Ultra Processed Foods
Supermarkets and fast food joints want our hard earned dollars; they have little concern for our health. They cater to our need of ease and natural urges towards sweets, salt, and calorie laden fats. They primarily accomplish this through heavy reliance on ultraprocessed foods. Excessive consumption of these nasties impacts our guts, weight, vital organs, and overall functioning.
During an extremely harsh and prolonged winter, the state wildlife protection agency feared the lack of natural food sources would devastate the forests deer population. They bought straw from local farmers to scatter on the forest floor.
Unfortunately, the plan failed. Much of the deer population still died. Autopsies revealed that the deer died of starvation—with their bellies full of straw.
Our bodies don’t need food. We need nutrients to fuel biological processes. Stuffing or faces with ill designed compilations of fats, sugars and salts fills our tummies but starve our bodies.
See Empty Calories for more on this topic
Foods that have not been processed, refined or had ingredients added, we refer to as whole foods. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meat, fish and eggs.
Whole foods in their natural state contain the most nutrients. As we begin to process (bake, boil, grill, and season), the denseness of nutrients declines.
“Obesity in children is growing out of control. A big part of this is economic. Fake foods are more affordable. It’s enticing people to eat more because they think they’re saving money when they’re really just buying heart disease.”~Jillian Michaels
There is nothing wrong with processing foods. We do it almost every time we prepare a meal. In many instances, some processing is necessary; we can’t eat a raw chicken.
Processed foods are negatively stigmatized. We see “processed” and immediately assume that the food is unhealthy—this is not the case. Interestingly, consumers are more likely to buy food labeled as “packaged food” than food labelled “processed” (Ivens, 2020).
Nutrition research relies on a more detailed classification of processed food. In 2009, the NOVA scale categorized foods into four groups: Unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultraprocessed foods.
Unprocessed foods (or minimally processed foods) are the whole foods. They include edible parts of plants and animals. We obtain these foods directly from one group through natural or minimally evasive processing such as milling, pressing, grinding, or drying. Many of our seasonings belong to this group.
These are products derived from relatively simple processing (cooking or non-alcoholic fermenting) and adding basic ingredients such as sugar, oil, salt, or seasonings from foods classified in group two. Most processed foods only have two or three ingredients. Ultraprocessed foods and drinks typically have more than five ingredients (often much more). These foods may include typical additives found in processed foods such as sugar, oil and fats. Only found in ultraprocessed foods are additives not commonly used in household kitchens whose purpose is to imitate tastes and textures of whole foods or disguise unsavory tastes and textures present after processing (Gibney, 2020). Dangerous additives often found found in ultraprocessed foods are hydrogenated fats and high-fructose corn syrup.
Research funded by the food industry typically argues against the NOVA scale. They prefer the Nutrient Dense Food (NDF) indices that were in place prior to the wide spread adoption of NOVA.
From a consumer point of view, the food industry would like you looking at the nutritional facts and skipping the ingredient list. It’s easier to add nutrients to increase nutritional values than limit ingredients and carefully maintain the original nutritional denseness of the whole food.
NOVA and the dangers of ultraprocessed foods has supporting evidence. Research suggests that diets composed mainly of ultraprocessed foods are associated with increased risk of heart disease, obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, depression, irritable bowl syndrome, cancer, asthma, and higher caloric consumption.
We must remember that associations (even strong ones) do not prove a cause. However, the long list of associated illnesses do beg for concern, especially since most diets in industrialized countries are composed of more than fifty percent of the calories coming from ultraprocessed foods.
We need some common sense as we trudge through the grocery store isles. Not every “single” ingredient food is healthy nor is every multiple ingredient food unhealthy. However, the foods containing large lists of ingredients create confusion, limiting our ability to properly decipher healthy from unhealthy.
A food stamped natural and pumped up with nutrients to dazzle with attractive nutritional facts may be a marketing trick without proven health benefits.
Our health benefits from wisely limiting ultraprocessed foods, while adding more whole foods (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) to our grocery carts and diets.
Most wellness changes do not require rigid, unbreakable rules; but rather simple shifts. Healthy diets are no exception. Spend more time in the produce and fresh meat sections and less time reading confusing packaged food labels. As we shift from heavy reliance on processed and prepared foods to more nutritionally dense whole foods, our bodies will leap with energy, enjoy healthier functioning and increase in disease fighting resilience.
Gibney, M. (2020). Ultraprocessed Foods and Their Application to Nutrition Policy. Nutrition Today,55(1), 16-21.
Ivens, B. (2020). The Emergence of the Term “Ultraprocessed” Foods in Nutrition Research. Nutrition Today,55(1), 11-15.