Ultra-Processed Foods

March 15, 2016 in Foodland, Health Claims, Nutritionism, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve written quite a bit about the drawbacks and undesirability of processed foods; I’ve often used the words highly processed but a newly released study has amplified the term “ultra-processed” and has shown how harmful it is, and brought me back to the subject. The new study is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on March 9, 2016. The researchers found that 57.9% of the calories consumed in the US and 89.7% of the calories from sugar come from ultra-processed foods. That’s amazing! Barely under 60% of calories are coming from ultra-processed foods; and essentially 90% of the sugar is coming from these same foods. The researchers spent considerable effort dividing foods into various levels of processing, and the worst level they called “ultra-processed”. The main conclusion of the researchers is that based upon their findings, reducing the excessive intake of ultra-processed foods would be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars.

Let’s not forget that foods that are high in sugar are by definition, inherently low in nutrients. Sugar in all its forms, is ONLY ENERGY (that is calories) no nutrients. So the more sugar that is added to any processed food the lower its nutritional value. In order to stay healthy, the new US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has recommended that added sugars should make up no more than 10% of total calories. Of course, the reason is that we eat not only for energy, of vital importance is to eat food that supplies the nutrients that keep us healthy, keep us from cancer and malnutrition.

The above BMJ article underscores the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They show that 75% of the sugar and high-fructose corn syrup eaten by Americans was used by the food industry. The reason I think this information is so valuable, is that people are beginning to recognize that their own intake of sugar needs to be cut back. But these same people don’t necessarily realize that there is such an amazingly large amount of sugar in processed foods. Look at the ingredient list on the container. Make it a habit. Label reading is a bit tricky, because the marketing departments of the food processors like to disguise their nutritional fraud, but by looking, we all can learn to see the difference between a minimally processed product and an ultra-processed product.

When mega profits are involved, it’s fascinating how quickly food processors can move to miss-educate the public through advertizing in its many ways. For example, when dietitians and nutritionists like myself started educating the public about processed food, BIG FOOD, rapidly started saying how great processed foods were. They dispersed a confusing smoke screen; they used slightly processed or barely processed foods for their examples. It was clear that we were not speaking about processed food as merely cutting fruit, for example and flash freezing it; or making steel cut oats. Note: More on that below. Cutting green beans, putting them into a can, adding water and salt is processing green beans – this is NOT ultra-processing. It is not what the shocking findings of this study are all about.

The following are examples of foods that are likely to be ultra-processed:

  • Sweet packaged foods and snacks - Ding Dongs; Twinkies
  • Savory packaged foods and snacks – Lunchables;
  • Confectionery and desserts
  • Packaged baked goods – breads
  • Crackers and chips – Cheetos; Potato chips; Ritz crackers
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fish sticks
  • Reconstituted meat products – hot dogs, cold cuts
  • Instant noodles – Ramen noodles
  • Soups, both dry packets and canned soups - not budget friendly homemade
  • Soft drinks - especially sweetened soft drinks
  • Sweetened Cereals (think Froot Loops, etc.)

If you’re new to Doctor Grandma’s Blog, you may be wondering why I care. In short, BIG FOOD, the processors that make most of the ultra-processed foods generally make them from very cheap, nutritionally impoverished ingredients (e.g. sugar, white flour)., The industrial formulations are loaded up with ingredients such as artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, thickeners, texturizers, gels, emulsifiers, preservatives and additives to make them taste like real food; sometimes some vitamins or minerals are added (read more on that). “Additives are used to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product,” said the lead author of the BMJ study cited above. Also, the food processors try to change the texture, and imitate the taste or other quality of the final product. Of course, I couldn’t write this article without referring to Dr. Grandpa’s creation of the word “fude,” an artificial word that is short for “fake-fattening artificial stuff that doesn’t deserve to be called real food.” The additives and chemicals are used to try to make the foods taste real, and the added cheap artificial vitamins are used to make them sound healthy. Let me be perfectly clear here; many of the ingredients added to ultra-processed foods are substances that are never or rarely ever used in cooking at home. They are added to mimic the qualities of real food.

Years ago, when we were producing pancake and muffin mixes for sale, the mixes were only made with whole-wheat flour, and a few traditional baking ingredients. It was surprising how many companies contacted us to offer their extensive assortment of ingredients that can be added to foods to reduce food cost and make the products last for a very long time. Scroll down a bit and check out the long list of food additives just from this one company – Everbum; it’s absolutely astounding. Another company that I still have in my file is Synergy Food Ingredients – you can make just about any ingredient smell, taste and look like something delicious to eat if you get the right additives.

Although the study in the BMJ focuses on the amount of sugar and salt in ultra-processed foods and how these relate to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, they don’t spend any effort on what is missing in the ultra-processed foods. That’s important too, as those missing nutrients are involved in keeping our cells, and thus, our bodies healthy and reducing our risk of cancer. I’ve written about that in the past and am not going to spend too much focus today, but if you want to read more about that you can read Who Knew What a Mess Nutritionism Would Become or Are We Being Robbed? for a small sample of articles.

The point is that there are hundreds…. no, thousands of nutrients in real whole foods. Ultra-processed fudes tend to be low in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and all manner of phytochemicals (plant nutrients). These nutrients are not found in sufficient amounts, in fake tomato products, for example (see Tomato Flavor Instead of Tomato, Hmmm?

In addition, many of the ultra-processed foods are intended to appeal to our taste buds, and cause us to desire eating more than we need – as we worked out the definition of fude itself in this web site – it importantly includes being designed to produce craving. This is not helpful, to say the least, when it comes to weight management issues at this time in history.

A few of examples of ultra-processed foods:

One single serving of Stouffer’s Lasagna with Meat & Sauce, intended to serve one person a meal, has 13 grams of sugar. That’s over 3 teaspoons of sugar per individual. If you make lasagna, is there sugar in your recipe? There’s not any in my infrequently used recipe.

A tiny little four-ounce ½ cup serving of Mott’s applesauce original (90 calories) has 20 grams of sugar (that’s 5 teaspoons). Mott’s Natural (50 calories, unsweetened) has 11 grams (from the apples). So what that means is that over 2 teaspoons of sugar are added to the original for a very small one-half cup serving. The strawberry applesauce has the same – almost double calories and as the original, but has the additional benefit (sarcasm) of a dose of Red #40 to make it suggest nice red strawberries. The Healthy Harvest Strawberry just uses fruit and vegetables for color and somehow gets by without all the sugar.

In the ‘making hot dogs’ Youtube video we can observe how scraps of meat can be turned into processed meat. The video points out that a very long time ago, German immigrants were selling hot dogs in this country. They even mentioned that it was more likely that they were really sausages back then. My observation is that German immigrants were not likely filling their hotdogs/sausages with high fructose corn syrup. Just sayin’!

I just took a quick tour of my pantry and freezer; I was checking the ingredient lists. When the produce was just fresh, not processed, it didn’t take me any time to look for excess sugar, salt, and unpronounceable additives. I have quite a stash of frozen fruit. Interestingly most of the fruit says the name of the fruit and that’s it. In my freezer there are: frozen organic blueberries (nothing but blueberries) same for pineapple, mango, strawberries; and mixed berries. I’ve got bananas that I sliced and put in plastic sandwich bags to use with the other fruit to make Yonanas (delicious smooth ground frozen fruit – the texture of soft serve ice cream, but is only fruit) or to be used in whole-wheat muffins or bread, etc. There are also raisins; (keep in freezer, so they don’t over dry). I did notice that my frozen peaches have a little ascorbic acid (another name for vitamin C, and citric acid (in citrus fruits – like squeezing a lemon on the peach to keep it from going brown). We like a variety of fruit and frozen fruit is so much easier to manage than fresh fruit, so we use it fairly frequently. As for vegetables, it’s pretty much the same. They are listed as just: green beans; edamame; corn; peas; broccoli - nothing added. I’m not talking about peanut butter made with nothing but peanuts; frozen fruits and vegetables; organic extra virgin olive oil; or steel cut oats when I’m talking about the ultra-processed foods to eschew. Yes, it takes some time reading the horrendous labels before buying ultra-processed fude, to protect yourself and your family. You save time and money for heath care as well. Speedy food preparation due to ultra-processing is not such a time saver when your lost time due to poor health, doctor visits and possibly even earlier death is considered.

Yes, it is true that we can save some time by using processed foods; but the problem comes when the foods are highly – no – ultra-processed. Frozen pizza sounds like a real time saver, but what’s in it? Is there any real tomato? How much sugar is in it? And what is included in that long list of ingredients. The same goes for lasagna and hundreds of other ultra-processed foods.

Clear back in July of 2011 I wrote about a company that was adding vitamins to impoverished ingredient cookies and trying to lead the public to think that there was something healthful about their cookies. I guess WhoNu? cookies went out of business; probably insufficient demand. In all honesty I can’t say I’m really sorry. I would say it was a bad business decision to sell cookies as a healthy food. I can only hope that people read the label, thought about it a bit, and figured out that they could serve a vitamin tablet with cheap cookies for much less money, so most of us decided against these fudes.

Hopefully, the demand for many of the ultra-processed foods will eventually be discerned as exactly the same problem; nutritionally impoverished food sold at high prices – not leading to optimal health.