A quick stop at a roadside shop in a city or in a tourist destination and you will be greeted by garlands of chips, namkeen or biscuit packets in their unmissable bright colours. Even hospital canteens are not free from this enticing display of packets of chips, sliced cakes and biscuits, making it easy for you to reach for a pack or two on your journey or hospital visit.
This is the scourge of ultra processed foods (UPFs) that has completely engulfed us over the years. We hear this term UPF all the time and may not have paused to think about its meaning and implications.
It is important to understand that some level of processing is what converts ingredients into food, something that we can cook, eat, digest and assimilate calories and nutrients from. Processed foods undergo some level of alteration from their original state, typically for preservation or to make them more amenable to consumption. Processing can involve methods such as chopping, cooking, canning, freezing, or drying. Some examples of processed foods include canned or frozen vegetables, cheese, yoghurt, toned milk etc.
UPFs V/S Processed Foods
These food products have undergone extensive industrial processing and contain a number of additives, preservatives, flavourings, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other substances.
They are typically ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat and often come in colourful packaging. Examples of UPFs include instant noodles and soups, sugary cereals, soft drinks, biscuits, namkeen, bakery and confectionary items, pre-packaged ready to eat meals, and many convenience items found in the centre aisles of supermarkets. Ultra-processed foods are often criticised for their potential negative impact on health due to their association with a range of health issues, including obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and other chronic diseases.
The manufacture and sale of UPFs dates back to the mid-20th century. The post-World War II era witnessed significant changes in food production, driven by technological advancements and increased demand for convenience. Industrial processes allowed for the creation of highly processed, packaged, and shelf-stable foods, marking the advent of ultra-processed products. They provided easy but empty or nearly empty calories fast to a working population.
Fast forward to 2023, the convenience offered by UPFs is unbeatable when it comes to a busy lifestyle. The rise of consumption of UPFs in India is worrisome. The UPF sector in India grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13.37% in retail sales value from 2011 to 2021, according to a report by the World Health Organization with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. The report identified chocolate and sugar confectionery, salty snacks, beverages, ready-made and convenient foods, and breakfast cereals as the five popular categories of UPFs in India. That paired with our not-so-great relationship with food and emotional eating patterns wreaks havoc on our wellbeing.
Health Implications Of UPFs
We all know that eating highly processed foods is not good for health in the long term.Ultra-processing often removes important nutrients and at the same time, adds sugar, salt, starches and unhealthy fats to come up with the final formula. This causes an overall lack of nutrients commensurate with the calories consumed, leading to imbalances in the diet.
Food processing involving fine grinding makes more fats and calories bioavailable to the consumer, making it a concentrated source of calories. For example, eating 30 grams of almond butter delivers more calories and fat to the body than 30 grams of almonds, chewed and eaten. Ultra-processing makes consumption of calories easier and faster leading to overconsumption. Taking the same example of almond or peanut butter, it is quicker to consume the calories when it is in butter form, leading to weight gain. Another good example of this is 100 calories from broccoli vs 100 calories from a cookie. The former will take some time to chew and eat, while the cookie can be devoured in no time.
Lack of fibre in the ultra processed product as compared to foods closer to their natural form also leads to a lack of fullness and satiety making us overeat.High levels of sugar, unhealthy fats and additives in UPFs lead to weight gain and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Regular consumption of UPFs is linked to an increased risk of hypertension (increased blood pressure) due to high sodium (salt) content in these foods. This along with the usage of trans fats also leads to an increased risk of heart.
Lack of dietary fibre and presence additives may lead to digestive problems such as constipation and poor overall gut health. Regular consumption of UPFs also leads to dysbiosis, or a condition in which there is an imbalance and lesser diversity in the gut microbiome. Millions of dollars are invested into making these foods hyper palatable i.e. designed to have an intensely appealing taste with flavours and additives, hacking the brain’s reward system. The chip brand isn’t lying when it says ‘No one can eat just one’. The more UPFs you eat, the more you will want to eat and the addictive cycle continues.
Making The Change
Now that you are aware of what exactly are UPFs and how they negatively impact our health, let me point you to the silver lining. The metabolic harm done by these foods can be reversed by reducing your intake of UPFs.
An easy way to cut down on UPFs is to include whole foods and ingredients in the meals you eat at home by avoiding store bought breads, cereals, spreads, biscuits, etc. It is very tough to avoid UPFs when eating outside, where the ingredients and products used are not in our control
Home cooking is vital when it comes to avoiding UPFs. Learning a few simple recipes and cooking techniques that can be adapted to a variety of ingredients is mandatory for those who prioritise their well-being.
Meal prepping some basic ingredients for the week is a big time saver when it comes to everyday home cooking. Carrying a lunch box from home to work or school also helps cut down on the stuff you might end up buying from packets. Keep a stash of whole snacks like fruit, nuts or homemade stuff along with water when you are going to be out all day travelling.
Making it a habit to read nutritional labels also increases awareness of what goes into the packs of food leading you to opt for products with a smaller and more recognizable list of ingredients. Gradually reduce the intake of UPFs rather than attempting sudden, drastic changes, to make it easier and sustainable in the long run.
While the big food industry continues to grow rapidly, solutions to tackle this issue must come from our individual decisions about what to include and avoid in our daily diets. Let's prioritise whole foods, embrace home cooking, and make informed choices that contribute to our overall well-being and disease prevention.