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Avoid "ultra-processed" food

November 4, 2010 - Kathie Evanoff
Last week the Journal of World Public Health Nutrition published an interesting article by Carlos Monteiro of the Centre of Epidemiologial Studies in Health and Nutrition from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

You can find this entire article at This extensive report explains the concept of food processing, a word food-writers have bandied about for quite some time. But his article takes the definition even further and studies the impact of food processing on human health.

According to Monteiro, much of what we eat is processed in one way or another, simply by its preparation. Chopping, cooking, freezing and otherwise altering fresh food is a form of processing. This, he says, is the first form and least damaging to our health.

The second form, which includes a little more processing but still isn’t all that harmful, is when fresh foods are combined with other foods to create meals. This includes pressing, crushing, and milling foods to create things like sweeteners, pasta and salt. It also includes adding things to food, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), lactose, milk and soy products to extend the food’s shelf life and enhance its flavor. While not all that bad, these foods should be limited.

The third method, which he calls “ultra-processing,” is when food is so altered that it barely resembles what it started out to be. This includes breaking down animal parts by combining them with excess fat and salt and grinding them into a liquid paste called a “slurry” and then pressing the mixture through an extrusion mold to create, let’s say, “nuggets.” But all the blame can’t be placed on the fast food industry. According to these descriptions, most sugary cereals and some salty snacks also fit the description of ultra-processed food. In addition, most ultra-processed foods are of the ready-to-eat variety that require little or no cooking, have extremely long shelf-lives and are excessive in the amount of sugars, salt, flours and starches. These foods also most likely contain trans-fats, are low in micronutrients and dietary fiber.

Because of the high palatability of ultra-processed foods, they can be addicting, Monteiro wrote, which he suggests can interfere with the normal process of appetite control.

While this 25-page commentary is extensive in its definitions, graphs and examples, it all boils down to the impact these foods and beverages have on our health. A rise in consumption of these foods since the 1980s corresponds with the rapid rise in worldwide obesity, Monteiro writes.

Look at it this way. Large food companies, like all businesses, have to make money. But how much more food can you encourage people to eat in order to sell more and increase profits each year. People can only eat so much. So in order to make more money, food companies try to find new ways to present food to give it more appeal. One way is to prey on our busy lifestyles, make food more convenient and easy to prepare and make it taste good too. Everyone knows the addition of sugar, fat and salt makes most food pretty tasty. So we buy more, eat more, and ruin our health. But the food companies make more money and that’s the name of the game.

Bottom line: eat food as close to the way it originated as possible. If it was a plant, eat it as fresh as possible. If it must be processed at all, do it yourself in your own kitchen by chopping, combining and cooking. If it was an animal, it should look like meat and not a piece of pressed whatever in some weird shape. Real fish, by the way, don’t swim as “sticks” or “wedges” and I’ve never seen a part on a chicken that I would consider a “nugget.”


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