Well, This Is Frustrating…

May 23, 2024

It’s the season of seashells and balloons. We long to hang outside and take vacations, big or small. We savor every second of the long days and warm nights, making any excuse to stay at the beach or in the park…just a little longer.

I am just back from working in Italy and Spain for the month of May. We hosted fabulous groups and I cooked beautiful meals, chock full of seasonal vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains and beans. Feasts were punctuated with great tours and wonderful guides in beautiful locations. A good time was had by all.

We all came home feeling fulfilled, renewed and healthy, after four weeks of cooking and eating real food.

And then I read the newspaper, seeing a headline that hinted that experts were once again stymied by the negative impact of ultra-processed foods on people’s wellness.

What the…????? Great mood killer…

The story began in the 1990’s with a nutritional epidemiologist in Brazil noticing obesity rates rising in the children of his country; enough so that he paid attention. Scrutinizing the buying patterns in households, he took note that people were buying less salt, sugar, cooking oils, rice and beans, usual staples of the kitchen and buying a much larger quantity of processed foods like soda, instant noodles, packaged breads and pastries.

This team of nutritionists introduced a new term into scientific literature: ultra-processed foods or UPF’s. Defining the term as highly processed foods rich in sugar, salt, white flour and a plethora of additives and artificial ingredients, they would go on to link UPF’s with not only weight gain, but a wide range of health conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal conditions and depression. And let’s not forget premature death.

Since that time, around thirty years, ultra-processed foods have become a major part of people’s eating worldwide. For example, UPF’s account for 67% of calories consumed by the majority of children and teens in the US.

Yikes, right?

But here is where the article goes off the rails for me. The continued research, almost thirty years’ worth supposedly has introduced more questions than answers at to the impact of UPF’s.

I thought they were kidding.

The nutrition team in Brazil developed a food classification system and called it “Nova.” This system (now used worldwide) puts food in four categories:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. In other words, real food: vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit, nuts, seeds.

2. Processed foods that include mildly processed foods like flour, sugar, honey, butter, cooking oils.

3. Foods that are naturally processed and combine natural ingredients, like canned foods, fermented foods, cheeses, extra virgin olive oil, fresh baked bread

4. Ultra-processed foods like those typically found in grocery stores and include ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, soy isolates, additives, artificial color and flavor. Think soda, chips, cookies, chicken ‘nuggets’, hot dogs, boxed mixes, most packaged breads and pastries, highly processed meat substitutes and some breakfast cereals.

As Brenda Davy (nutrition professor at Virginia Tech said, “If you look at the ingredient list and you see things you wouldn’t use in home cooking, that’s probably an ultra-processed food.”

As research continues, mostly observational studies, there seems to be most convincing evidence that UPF’s are associated with thirty-two health problems (32!!!!!!), enough to convince the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health to say that this link increases confidence that UPF’s can be a problem for human health.

Seriously? Can be a problem…?

Other nutrition experts say that the studies done so far have “limitations” and while it’s true that there’s a correlation between UPF’s and chronic diseases doesn’t mean that these foods cause poor health.

Yup, you read that correctly.

While it’s true that some UPF’s are more harmful to us than others; think soda versus white bread, are we not splitting hairs here?

Why can’t nutrition experts come out and say the simple truth? UPF’s are harmful to health…full stop.

They say that clinical trials are needed to see if UPF’s directly cause health problems. I guess looking at the statistics of our collective decline in wellness isn’t as obvious to them as it is to me.

One small study done revealed that only two weeks of UPF’s in the diet resulted in 2 pounds of weight gain and 500 calories more consumed daily.

Experts tell us that while there are “strong opinions” about why UPF’s are wreaking havoc on our collective wellness, more rigorous science is needed.

I guess it’s not enough for them to realize that these foods are intentionally manufactured to cause overeating, due to hard-to-resist combos of fat, sugar and salt, not to mention flavor enhancers designed to make them addictive. They are made to be easy to chew so you swallow more quantity quickly.

These experts won’t even commit to the idea that the blood sugar spikes that come as a result of eating these foods can damage arteries, increase inflammation, disrupt hormonal function and cause all manner of digestive issues.

Here is the real kicker though. Many countries like Mexico, Brazil, Canada and a variety of European countries explicitly recommend avoiding UPF’s, US dietary guidelines contain no such advice. (I’m holding my breath to see the new guidelines released in 2025.)

Experts say that it’s hard to know what to do about UPF’s in the American diet as so much of our food is ultra-processed and so many people can be dependent on them because of economic constraints.

Experts recommend eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and good fats, along with cooking at home as much as possible.

Beyond that, say various experts, there’s nothing more conclusive to say at this point.

How about instead of studies that will reveal what’s obvious to anyone with a brain, we spend that money on making real food readily available to everyone? How about we spend it on education so people know what they are buying?

Or how about this; how about we get special interest lobbyists out of our food system so that people can have access to real food information and not remain ignorant of what they are buying?

Experts ask what we can do about UPF’s? We can take them out of our food system. How? With education, we will have a more informed consumer who will demand better by voting with their dollar.

And in the end, what food manufacturers want more than anything is your dollar. So spend it wisely…on food that creates wellness and doesn’t steal it from you.