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Ultraprocessed people: a calory-high, nutrient-poor reality

Humans have been processing food in several ways since the beginning. Related species of hominins cooked and processed their food, too: an archaeological site in Israel is the first known evidence of prehistoric humans transforming raw to cooked food deliberately with fires at least 780,000 years ago.

Some specific fatty nutrients required for brain growth came from cooked fish early on. Homo erectus had already mastered cooking fire. Remains of food in teeth confirm that fish and meat were cooked under 500 °C or 932 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Irit Zohar from Tel Aviv University:

“This suggested that the fish had been cooked at a controlled temperature rather than just burned.”

Humans are the only species capable of cooking their food, building a culture around it. Whether homo erectus appreciated their food or stuck to mere survival, we do not know.

Gazpacho and the Columbian Exchange

Fast forward to early humans, our late Paleolithic and Bronze Age ancestors in Western Eurasia and Northern Africa ate a proto version of the Mediterranean diet: local fruits and vegetables depending on the season, a little meat, fish, wild grains, and an active lifestyle. People in the Neolithic completed the diet with fruit groves, grains (bread), beans, and dairy products. This diet didn’t change much until recently in traditional areas around the Mediterranean Basin.

The food I ate in summertime growing up could have been recognized, or at least understood and tolerated as “food,” by Bronze Age cultures (like any other cuisine in the world, Mediterranean food soon adopted staples and ingredients coming from all corners of the world during the Columbian Exchange, which brought tomatoes, chocolate, corn, potatoes, and much more).

However, food has entered a new stage in the last decades, with ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) that only resemble relatable food on the surface. Their chemical composition and amounts of refined sugar, sodium, saturated fats, and potentially dangerous additives set them apart from previous diets. Despite the health risk they represent, UPFs constitute the more significant part of adults’ (57%) and children’s (67%) daily caloric intake in the United States.

I still recall vacationing with my grandparents at this time of the year. Sometimes we’d be out the whole day, then come back to the house starved after a long day of free-range play around a small Mediterranean village lost in time. My grandmother would always ask whether we were hungry, then improvise with what she’d had around, a blend of seasonal leafy veggies, produce (with plenty of ripe tomatoes), dairy, cured meats, green beans, etc.

Delicious (and healthy) processed food

She’d cook a variation of “sofrito” (a sautéed sauce with caramelized onion, veggies, some meat, garlic, fresh parsley, a bit of salt, maybe a bit of paprika), which would go with almost any dish. There are variations of sofrito (“soffritto” in Italian, “sofregit” in Catalan) that wouldn’t be out of tune in a book of Roman recipes like those by Apicius —excluding, of course, the ingredients made possible by the Columbian Exchange: tomatoes and peppers are New World vegetables not cultivated in Europe until the 16th century, though perfectly integrated into the local cuisine ever since.

When it was too hot to cook, gazpacho and fresh salads, served cold with a bit of tuna or sardines, would suffice. An omelet and a plate of green beans with cooked potato could go on the side. Olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper were always handy at the table.

My grandmother passed away a few years ago, unfortunately. Yet, my parents, aunts, and uncles cook similarly, especially on weekends, when they can sit freely at the table and chat before, during, and after food. Yet the cult of speed and convenience is breaking the tradition of mainly cooking fresh and processed food in which anybody can understand the ingredients of the preparation method.

Current common foods aren’t perceived anymore as highly processed, driving their sales up as they are perceived as “regular” meals with no actual substitute (other than what Michael Pollan would call “actual food”): processed breakfast cereals, processed supermarket bread, ready meals, frozen pizzas, processed supermarket sandwiches, sauces, and drinks.

A life-defining investment: cooking fresh food

Quoting Michael Pollan when he tried to proselytize about healthy cooking and nutritional habits a few years back, cooking “food” that our grandparents recognize, avoiding highly processed ingredients, and deciding ourselves about amounts and types of additives, will suffice to eat tasty food that is also healthier than ultraprocessed counterparts.

No matter how much sugar, salt, or fat we add to a plate: the types and amounts of these ingredients will be much lower than highly processed alternatives that make the news for their links to exacerbate the so-called diseases of civilization (cancer, diabetes, obesity, behavioral disorders, inflammation, speed cognitive decline).

Not all added sugar and fat are equal: nobody will use high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and similar refined substitutes to unrefined sugar or hormonally enhanced meat with added nitrates when they cook fresh food at home. Moreover, even if anybody were to use such ingredients, they’d likely add a smaller amount of it when deciding themselves than when it has already been added to an ultraprocessed dish from a bag that carries all the ingredients… and then some more.

When we cook our own food, we will add fewer amounts of salt, sugar, and fat and choose the vegetable oil, butter, meat, or fish used. The food we don’t perceive as highly processed, like “natural” fruit juices, bread, or even milk, often includes high amounts of additives. Other products, like ready meals that could be healthy if cooked at home, may consist of elevated amounts of the additives anybody should avoid as much as possible:

  • hydrogenated and trans fat (associated deep-fried UPFs);
  • high fructose corn syrup (Michael Pollan’s main antagonist in The Omnivore’s Dilemma);
  • artificial colors (associated with ADHD);
  • added sugar: with UPFs, sodas, and juice drinks, it’s challenging to control or even know the sugar intake; even foods that could be healthy with fewer additives, like a tea drink or a liquid yogurt, end up packing so much sugar, sweeteners, preservatives, and artificial flavors, that they become the main contributors for high sugar intake and diabetes;
  • artificial sweeteners like acesulfame-K (associated with imbalanced gut health or dysbiosis);
  • nitrites and nitrates in meat and vegetables could trigger thyroid imbalance or even cancer;
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer, is a known disruptor of the central nervous system;
  • synthetic preservatives, like BHA/BHT and TBHQ, synthetic compounds with antioxidant properties, can affect our endocrine system;
  • artificial flavors, like diacetyl, have been associated with several health issues, from lung disease to triggering Alzheimer’s.
  • sodium in excess, which could impact the nervous system. UPFs abuse sugar and sodium additives.

Turning food into culture (and avoiding no-food food)

We humans uniquely turned our food into culture. However, other animals also prepare their food in specific ways, though not by consciously heating it. Adult ants, for example, digest complex food to marinate it with digestive enzymes so their larvae can eat the predigested meat.

Certainly, no one but us risks poisoning ourselves by ingesting food of dubious nutritional value. A more recent type of prepared food, the aforementioned ultraprocessed food (UPF), represents a risk previously nonexistent (or residual) on traditional blends of fresh, whole, and mildly-processed foods with ingredients and techniques anybody would recognize.

Only a few decades old, UPFs are calorie-rich but usually nutrient-poor; they are rapidly absorbed by our stomach, contributing to gut bacteria imbalances and behavioral issues because they override satiety signals and the brain’s own chemistry (jeopardizing mental health, according to studies).

Cooking food sped human evolution, and soon processing techniques allowed people to store it longer and overcome the limitations of seasonality after gathering wild fruit, vegetables, or meat, paving the way for the Neolithic revolution. Ever since the majority of our ingested calories come from food processed in one way or another: rice and other staples are harvested and hulled; animals are butchered, and their meat smoked, cured, salted, cooked, or roasted; seeds are roasted or put in water to let them sprout; fruits are dried or dehydrated; etc.

Processed food that cares about your microbiome

Yet on these techniques that, as declared by journalist and essayist Michael Pollan, our grandmothers would recognize, people don’t need chemical compounds or sophisticated equipment and technology to enhance our appetite for them to the extreme of incontinence.

Even if we can afford to dedicate our time and resources to live off unprocessed foods, this exclusive quest for a pseudo-paleolithic ideal of healthy eating doesn’t check with reality: humans not only ate wild fruits, nuts, uncooked wild leafy plants or roots, meat, or fish but also cooked and prepared a big deal of it to favor either its digestion or its preservation for off-season survival.

Like our paleolithic poster-child of an imaginary remote yesteryear, we’d be fooling ourselves by thinking we could live off exclusively unprocessed food. Up until recently, human diet across the world relied on traditional methods of processing food to get flours, oils (from whale or seal oil in the Arctic to extra virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean basin), dairy products, pickled food, or cured meat, and fermented beverages, from liquid milk derivatives to alcoholic ones.

Some food became edible when we learned to process it to make it, like ants feeding their larvae, easier to digest; this preparation didn’t only make food more palatable and less indigestible but often enhanced its nutrients while making it safer by eliminating pathogens and leaching the toxic tannins of previously unedible staples, unleashing from valuable nutrients. As a result, our species benefited from the nutritional abundance that processing foods created.

Ultraprocessed foods: high-calory, low-nutrient, plain dangerous

Just because it’s processed doesn’t mean it’s bad. Pickled and frozen fruits and vegetables, nut butter, tofu, bread, yogurt, or dried fruit belong to “processed” foods. Though we should distinguish traditional processed foods, often prepared using whole ingredients and additives that we understand from a different family that is taking over a growing percentage of people’s diets: ultraprocessed foods.

Scientists refer to food processing through a four-tiered system called Nova scale or score:

  • group 1: unprocessed and minimally processed foods like vegetables, legumes, chicken, milk, wheat, flour;
  • group 2: processed culinary ingredients like vegetable oils, butter, sugar, iodized salt;
  • group 3: processed foods that are industrially manufactured, though still using recognizable ingredients (canned vegetables, dried or smoked meats or fish, cheese);
  • group 4: ultraprocessed foods or food formulations using industrial processes and ingredients not used in home cooking.

Made mostly (or entirely) from substances and additives tweaked in laboratories to maximize its flavor and taste that people don’t have at home to cook with, such as preservatives, dyes, non-sugar sweeteners, artificial flavors and even engineered textures and scent, ultraprocessed foods are often marketed as convenient, recognizable food such as snacks, soups, prepared dishes, and certain “meat” products with a long list of additives (including chemicals such as potentially carcinogenic nitrites and nitrates).

But despite the growing evidence stating that, when eaten as a person’s main diet over a lifetime, ultraprocessed food is harmful (as attested by several longitudinal studies), food companies and casual advertising on social media have succeeded in reducing the public conversation to the “calories” of a particular product instead of its nutrient-poor engineered composition that is absorbed in ease by our organism, potentially transforming a person’s metabolism.

Our body isn’t ready for UPFs

When foods are altered with extra sugar, salt, and fat, then infused with artificial, they become a radically different nutrient with little in common to their whole counterparts. All calories are not created equal —some are easier to digest and more dangerous to us than others. An apple may have the same amount of calories as an apple fruit bar, but they are only equivalent in number; the nutrition (or lack thereof) provided by UPFs is different, and the effects on satiety are different, too.

Conversely, a carton of eggs doesn’t equal a highly-processed frozen egg patty like a glass of tap water is a world away from a “water-based” soda. Or, as put by a recent article by The Economist on the health risks of ultraprocessed foods:

“A pizza made from scratch contains minimally processed food (wheat turned into flour, tomatoes into sauce, milk into cheese). The one in the freezer, with its thiamine mononitrate and sodium phosphate, is UPF.”

Yet the success of ultraprocessed foods is inquestionable, and not only among teenagers. BBC’s collaborator Chris Van Tulleken dissects in a book, Ultra Processed People, how this “food that isn’t food” tricks the brain into eating more. Due to their fast digestion, they’re absorbed so quickly that some people never perceive the fullness signal, which is why new generation of weight loss drugs, initially designed to lower sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes, is raising in popularity after reports on their effect as appetite suppressant (their main ingredient, semaglutide, induces the feeling satiety).

Do you recognize the ingredients? If you don’t…

Ultraprocessed foods are also designed to be perceived as cheap (albeit they can be as expensive as a drink marketed as “coffee,” though in reality an engineered caloric bomb such as “mocha” coffees), convenient, and tasty (thanks to laboratory substances designed to trigger our appetite).

More importantly, UPFs foods have more ingredients and additives than conventionally-processed ones, most of whom we don’t understand and have never heard about; they are also less nutrient-dense than mildly-processed or whole foods. But most important, there’s growing evidence that ultraprocessed food causes serious health problems.

According to Stephen Devries, a preventive cardiologist:

“Health consequences of ultraprocessed foods are dire. A large study conducted over 19 years showed a 31% higher mortality for the highest versus lowest consumers of ultraprocessed foods. The concerns include recent documentation of an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.”

Devries believes UPFs should be easy to recognize by anyone. After looking at one package’s nutrition label:

“If you don’t recognize many of the ingredients listed, that can be a sign that there was a lot of processing involved.”

How did things taste before artificial flavor saturation?

The commercial success of ultraprocessed foods and their pervasiveness in commercial drinks, snacks, ready meals, soups, commercial bread, and blockbuster desserts such as ice cream, will affect the health of millions of people in the coming decades, often from an early age.

Those assuring that UPFs are safe and the campaign against their expansion is out of sync with reality will find abundant literature confirming their effects on human health: they increase blood sugar levels and trigger obesity and diabetes but, at the same time, they trigger deficiencies due to their nutrient-poor composition. Even more disturbing, the additives used to increase their appeal (color, flavor, taste, texture-enhancers) and shelf life are responsible for demonstrated health effects.

Cutting on UPFs shouldn’t be that difficult, albeit it requires discipline given their generalized use: instead of yogurts and other milk derivatives with added sugar or sweeteners, plain versions allow anybody to add their own fruit or sugar. Sauces or ready meals have also a homemade version that will be healthier and will contain less refined sugar, sodium, fats, and no additives.

Homemade porridge can replace low-fiber breakfast cereals, and plain deserts, or deserts made at home, will also avoid excess and unrecognizable ingredients.

Food will also taste better. And anybody can relearn the actual taste and flavor of things.