Dumping Ultra-Processed Foods May Significantly Improve Overall Health

March 7, 2024 at 6:57 p.m.

Ultra-processed foods are packed with additives and emulsifiers that strip food of healthy nutrients, according to nutritionists. Fizzy drinks, cereals, packaged snacks, and processed meats are considered ultra-processed foods because they are packed with additives. Oil, fat, sugar, starch and sodium, as well as emulsifiers such as carrageenan, carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate and soy lecithin can strip food of healthy nutrients. At the same time, ultra-processed foods contain other ingredients that are detrimental to human health.

Hundreds of novel ingredients never encountered by human physiology are now found in nearly 60% of the average adult’s diet and nearly 70% of children’s diets in the United States. While obesity and lack of physical activity are well recognized contributors to avoidable morbidity and mortality in the US, another emerging hazard is the unprecedented consumption of ultra-processed foods in the standard American diet. This may be the new “silent killer,” according to the latest research.

Physicians from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine are now reporting that the food industry and public policy do not align with a person’s needs. Their findings are published in a commentary in The American Journal of Medicine. “Those of us practicing medicine in the US today find ourselves in an ignominious and unique position. We are the first cohort of healthcare professionals to have presided over a decline in life expectancy in 100 years,” said Dr. Dawn H. Sherling, who is the associate program director for the internal medicine residency and an associate professor of medicine at FAU Schmidt College of Medicine in Boca Raton, Florida.

Professional organizations such as the American College of Cardiology are cautioning individuals to “choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods.” However, there is no commonly accepted definition for ultra-processed foods, and some healthy foods may exist within the ultra-processed food category.

“When the components of a food are contained within a natural, whole food matrix, they are digested more slowly and more inefficiently, resulting in less calorie extraction, lower glycemic loads in general, and lower rise in triglyceride-rich lipoproteins after eating, which could result in atherosclerotic plaque,” said Dr. Allison H. Ferris, who is an associate professor and director of the internal medicine residency program, at FAU Schmidt College of Medicine.

The most widely accepted definition of ultra-processed food is defined by the Nova classification system developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. This definition has been adopted by many health researchers. Subsequently, a growing numbers of health organizations are adopting the NOVA classification system, which divides foods into four categories: whole foods, culinary ingredients (items like butter, oil and salt), traditionally processed foods (such as bread and yogurt made with few ingredients), and ultra-processed foods or those foods that are industrially made and use ingredients not normally found in a domestic kitchen.

One plausible mechanism to explain the hazards posed by ultra-processed foods is that they contain emulsifiers and other additives that the gastrointestinal tract mostly does not digest. They may act as a food source for our microbiota, and as such may be creating a dysbiotic microbiome that can promote disease. “Additives, such as maltodextrin, may promote a mucous layer that is friendly to certain species of bacteria that are found in greater abundance in patients with inflammatory bowel disease,” said Dr. Sherling.

The researchers note that there have been marked increases in colorectal cancer in the US, especially among younger adults. They hypothesize that increased ultra-processed food consumption may be a contributor as well as to several other gastrointestinal diseases. “The multinational companies that produce ultra-processed foods are just as, if not more, powerful than tobacco companies were in the last century, and it is unlikely that governments will be able to move quickly on policies that will promote whole foods and discourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods,” said Dr. Sherling. “Importantly, healthcare providers also should remain cognizant of the difficulties that many of our patients have in being able to afford and find healthier options.”

This issue calls for a broader public health response and part of the problem is that Dr. Sherling said there isn't a list of ultra-processed foods. “If there were, it would contain a lot of what we eat. Countries in the European Union are trying to figure out how best to label foods to indicate their level of processing, but this remains up for debate currently. The best way to figure out if a food is ultra-processed is to ignore the front of the package and turn it over to look at the ingredients,” said Dr. Sherling.

If you can't picture what an ingredient might look like growing in nature, such as maltodextrin or guar gum, that food is ultra-processed. “Almost any food you will get at a fast-food restaurant is going to be ultra-processed, but there are some exceptions. Chipotle says that they use no ultra-processed ingredients in the making of their food. And even if you are going to get a burger, if you just get the meat and veggies and avoid the bread and sauces, you are eating something much less processed and probably better for you,” said Dr. Sherling.

The American College of Cardiology has advised everyone to avoid ultra-processed foods because they are far from heart healthy and heart disease is the number one killer of older adults. Rates of cancers are also increasing and there is some evidence linking certain cancers to ultra-processed foods. “Additionally, cognitive impairment seems to be linked to the consumption of ultra-processed food as well. Healthy aging is dependent on eating a healthy diet among other healthy habits,” said Dr. Sherling. “When it comes to eating healthy, the best thing you can do is be thoughtful about your diet and if you can, take the time to make a meal plan.”

The evidence shows that the more whole foods and the less ultra-processed foods you eat, the better off you are. That means having half your plate filled with vegetables whenever possible. “Don't let food become something else to worry about. We have too much stress and that isn't good for us either. Make small changes where you can, maybe exchange one ultra-processed food for a whole food a week. Over the course of a year, your diet will improve exponentially,” said Dr. Sherling.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.

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