“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”
Hi there! And welcome to my blog, where I will do my best to share with you some simple scientific information on food, health and wellness.
As an Italian-Australian dietitian with a background in natural medicine, my approach to nutrition and to life is definitely wholistic (considering the body, mind and the spirit) and holistic (belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole) with a pinch of scepticism and curiosity and a constant research for scientific evidence.
I totally believe in the importance of prevention vs intervention, advocating a healthy, natural and real philosophy of life as a way of living. If you want to know more about me or you are curious to know why you should eat like nonna, have a look here!
So, should we all eat only fruit and vegetables picked directly from the plant?
Lets dig a little deeper into the food processing process and ask ourselves, what does food processing mean? And why food is processed?
Food processing can be defined as the series of operations used by food and beverage industries to transform raw plant and animal materials (unprocessed food) into products for consumers. 1,2
Unprocessed food is usually perishable and cannot be stored for a long time. Moreover, it requires more work in the kitchen to make it digestible, safe and palatable. Some forms of food processing technology have been used since the old times: early Egyptians brewed beer and baked bread and the ancient Greeks drank wine and ate salted pork (predecessor to ham and bacon)1. Nowadays, most of the food that we consume is processed to some extent. Because the degree of food processing varies quite a lot, Carlos Monteiro, a professor at the University of São Paulo suggests that we should distinguish and classify food based on the nature, magnitude and purpose of processing3
MINIMAL PROCESSED FOOD
PROCESSED CULINARY INGREDIENTS
ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS
|clean, chilled or frozen vegetables; dried and packaged grains, plain yoghurt, pasteurised milk, frozen meat..||oils, fats, flours, starches, sugar and salt.||breads, cookies, ice creams, chocolates, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, chips, pizza, soft drink, hot dogs, burgers, sausages and ready meals in general..|
|whole foods that have been submitted to minimal modifications to prolong their duration, enable storage and increase safety. These processes do not substantially alter the nutritional properties of the original foods||Extraction of ingredients from the whole foods that are rarely eat alone but typically used in the cooking elaboration of dishes mainly made up of fresh and minimally processed foods.||Products made up from combination of group 2 ingredients to which little or no whole foods 1 are added, plus lots of salt and other additives|
What exactly are Ultra Processed Products (UPP)?
As Monteiro said, UPP are ‘durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Such ultra-processed products are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration (‘long shelf life’), to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable (‘high organoleptic quality’) and often to be habit-forming. Typically they are designed to be consumed anywhere—in fast-food establishments, at home in place of domestically prepared and cooked food, and while watching television, at a desk or elsewhere at work, in the street, and while driving.’ Read all the commentary here
Overall, compared with whole foods prepared with culinary ingredients, ultra-processed products have4:
- Much more energy per volume
- less fibre
- less protein
- more free sugar
- more total, saturated and trans fat
- more sodium
In other words, they are the exactly opposite of what a food should be. But it doesn’t end here. Ultra-processed foods can promote unhealthy dietary patterns: designed to be portable, convenient and accessible, they induce eating patterns such as ‘grazing’ and skipping main meals, eating when doing other things such as watching television, driving a car or working, and eating alone3. And they are promoted by questionably regulated advertising that identifies fast and convenience food, soft drinks and other products as a necessary and integral part of the good life2.
To conclude, with few exceptions, almost all types of ultra-processed products, including those advertised as ‘light’ or ‘reduced’ are intrinsically unhealthy. Don’t be fooled and think that healthier versions of ultra-processed foods are the solution. Some of these modifications, such as no trans fats and reduced salt, are indeed positive. But beware: the reduction in fat with the increase in sugar content or the addition of synthetic vitamins and minerals into soft drinks or high energy-dense snacks will not make these products healthy foods (although you are induced to think they are).
What shall we do, then? Become mindful eaters and conscious consumers! And do our best to base diets on fresh and minimally processed foods an on good healthy habits!!
1. Truswell AS, Brand JC. Processing food. British Medical Journal. 1985;291(6503):1186-90
2. Carlos A. Montairo, A new food classification based on the extent and purpose of industrial food processing; 8th International Conference on Diet and Activity Methods FAO, Rome 14-17 May 2012
3. Monteiro (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public Health Nutr 12: 729-31.
4. Monteiro et al. (2011) Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health: evidence from Brazil. Public Health Nutr 14: 5-13.