Obese and Hungry: How Processed Foods make us Sick
In recent decades, traditional breakfasts, in which teas and coffees have long since made their mark, have mutated in many cities around the world into festivals of sweetened cereals, milkshakes, buns and chocolate cookies with lists of eternal unknown ingredients.
This is not something that happens only at the first meal of the day.
The diets of millions of people around the world changed from the traditional fresh foods to consuming large numbers of products with a high level of processing, long duration and that hardly ever require preparation.
It is not simply modified foods, such as traditional bread based on flour, water, and salt, or cheeses made with milk, salt and some microorganisms for fermentation.
What we call ultra-processed food today are mere formulations of ingredients, many of them exclusively for industrial use. They are the result of a sequence of industrial processes.
The concept covers products prepared from components extracted from real foods such as starches, sugars, fats or refined oils, to which preservatives are added so that they last for a long time. But that is not bad enough.
These food products and their formulations make them so appealing and so palate that even people who can afford real food, end up buying products laden with artificial products.
They usually include high doses of sugars, salts or fats. Even, according to research, their labels seek to deceive the body’s appetite control mechanisms, which explains the tendency to consume them in large quantities.
These products, manufactured and marketed in many cases by large multinationals, contributed almost 60% of the calories consumed by Americans between 2007 and 2012.
The figures are similar in Canada or the United Kingdom, but they are increasing rapidly around the world.
Undoubtedly, this growing consumption is a very important element in the obesity epidemic.
Food habits such as the Mediterranean, based on bluefish, nuts, fruits or vegetables have been changed by so-called fast foods and prepared foods.
At a global level, an association has been observed between the increase in the consumption of these products and the growing epidemic of obesity and lack of good health.
Many highly processed products attract consumers by announcing their wealth in fibers, in certain minerals or in certain vitamins.
What leads consumers to think that natural food and ultra-processed foods are equivalent is the preponderant nutritional reductionism that reduces someone’s diet to a set of nutrients,
What is more serious is that very little is known regarding how nutrients and other components in these food products interact in the same food; nothing beyond the fact that they cause obesity.
For example, there is still no guarantee that the effect on the human body of something added such as a vitamin or synthetic minerals is equivalent to the nutrient naturally present in natural food.
For this reason, more and more nutritionists are invited to elaborate the diet around what is called complete natural products and not in elaborations with added nutrients such as chocolate bars with iron or artificial fruit juices without sugar.
In this line, the food guides of countries like Brazil emphasize the importance of basing the diet on natural foods.
We must also think that the natural foods that we consume today are the result of a natural and cultural selection that has been occurring for generations, accompanying our evolutionary process as a species that is often ignored by the industrial feed when creating food products.
In Latin America, for example, traditional dishes combine corn and beans, which makes perfect sense if one considers that each of these foods has an essential amino acid that the other lacks.
That, however, is different from consuming them every single day, leaving little room for variety; and that is precisely what is happening in almost the entire world, as reflected in the figures of consumption in more and more countries.
Other research in 19 European countries showed that, on average, 26.4% of the calories acquired in households come from ultra-processed.
But the figures varied from 10.2% of Portuguese households and 13.4% in Italians to 46.2% in Germany and 50.4% in the United Kingdom.
A document from the University of São Paulo argues that the saturation of the market in the more developed countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom led large food companies to focus on emerging markets, such as Latin America, Asia or Africa, where sales have been growing for more than 10% per year.
In the eighties, ultra-processed products accounted for less than 20% of Brazilians’ calorie consumption. In 2012, they were already 28%. In 1985, the adult obesity rate was 8.3% and, three decades later, 21.6%.
The population of Latin America has seen its food patterns change rapidly in the last 30 years, observes Ricardo Rapallo, from the United Nations Agency for Food and Agriculture.
In these years, the region has progressed enormously in the fight against undernourishment and countries like Brazil have even officially ended hunger.
In many countries, there is greater income and greater access to proteins, but also, due to the evolution of food systems, accessibility to products that are not necessarily healthier.
Unfortunately, in many cases, these less healthy products become more palatable and easy to use, especially because they are offered at low prices which ends up encouraging their purchase, even in places where real food is available.
Today more animal and vegetable proteins are ingested, but vegetables and fruits are left aside. In consequence, more fats, sugars, and carbohydrates with less fiber are consumed.
In countries like Guatemala, there is a routine consumption of sugary drinks, sweet or salty snacks and other ultra-processed products.
Between 1999 and 2013, the per capita annual sale of highly processed food products increased continuously in 12 Latin American countries, and a study conducted in those countries found that this increase was associated with an increase in the body mass index of adults, regardless of the amount they consumed.
Brazil, where it is estimated that every year there are two million more obese people, or Uruguay, where almost a third adults suffer from this disease, have adopted a classification of foods according to their degree of processing when designing their nutritional recommendations.
The Food Guide of Brazil recommends making natural or minimally processed foods the basis of someone’s diet.
It encourages the use of seasonings such as oils, fats, salt and sugar in small quantities and asks people to consume a few processed foods such as cheeses, bread, cured meats, and others. The guidelines are clear about one aspect of nutrition: Ultra-processed foods must be avoided.
But the tendency in the whole world is the opposite. Sometimes due to lack of knowledge or lack of information people resort more to these products, independently of their levels of sugars, fats or salts.
The increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods has a common denominator: CONVENIENCE.
People do not need to cook them too much to eat them, they last much longer, they are easier to find and, sometimes, they are quite cheaper. All of this is propelled into people minds by well-placed advertising campaigns.