Ultra-Processed Food

In the 90s a legend circulated at the doors of schools all over Spain that someone – no one knows who – was giving drugs to children. Their modus operandi varied by province: in Madrid, mothers warned their children about stickers impregnated with a mysterious substance that they gave you when you left school and that got you addicted. Truly the product of a Machiavellian mind beyond the scope of even the evilest drug cartels and of course was never confirmed. What is true is that many of those children ended up getting hooked on Bollycaos, Tigretones or Pink Panther chocolate bars that their mothers offered them and that the only drug that was being widely circulated was excess sugar. We now have a lot more knowledge regarding what we eat and what should be throwing modern parents into a panic is ultra-processed products.

Older Spanish generations grew up between Bollycaos and trading cards but there has never been the access there is today to sugar, fats or salt in such exorbitant quantities as are available in ultra processed food.

What are ultra-processed products?

 The difference between food and ultra-processed is substantial, and it is explained by Carlos Ríos, dietician, nutritionist and author of the Realfooding website: “These products are edible industrial preparations made from substances derived from other foods. They really have no whole food in them, just long lists of ingredients. In addition, these ingredients usually undergo previous processing such as hydrogenation or frying of oils, hydrolysis of proteins or refining and extrusion of flours or cereals. On their labels it is common to read refined raw materials (flour, sugar, vegetable oils, salt, protein, etc.) and additives (preservatives, dyes, sweeteners, flavor enhancers, emulsifiers…)”.

“In this group,” Ríos continues, “we can find 80% of the food sold in supermarkets: sugary drinks, ready meals, pastries, processed meats, cookies, sugared dairy products, desserts, sweets, refined cereals, pizzas, chicken nuggets, energy or diet bars, etc.” There are other processed (without the ultra) products that are healthy, because they do not interfere with the molecular structure or quality of the food: good examples would be olive oil, artisan cheeses, canned fish, vegetables or legumes, as well as frozen vegetables or fish.

Why are they so popular?

“Ultra-processed foods are manufactured to promote maximum consumption and to acheive this they include ndustrial organoleptic characteristics that stimulate appetite intensely. In our present culture they abound everywhere in a very accessible and irresistible way and advertising prompts us to buy them. The more ultra-processed foods we consume, the less real food is present in our diet, so we lose quality in two ways,” explains Ríos.

Are they really so unhealthy?

“Most of these foods contain at least one of the following substances: salt, unhealthy fats, sugar and additives, although in most cases they present all four at once,” explains nutritionist Andrea Sorinas. “The presence of refined flours in these foods is also very common. All these substances not only provide us with empty calories but are also harmful to our health.”

If we look more closely at their ingredients, we discover that additives, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, solvents, binders and fillers, sweeteners and sensory enhancers of color and flavor predominate.

“Often, to make a highly processed food, a very important part of the original food is removed. An example could be the refining of flours in which the bran and germ of the cereal are eliminated, which are indispensable parts of the food for it to be healthy,” adds Sorinas, dietician and nutritionist.



Do they create addiction?

“You can literally hear your arteries crying out for help”. Because this type of product “cheap, convenient, appetizing, accessible and long-lasting,” can create a certain habit or dependency, says Sorinas. The issue is tricky, because in addition to fighting advertising or our laziness, we fight against genetics and our brain. A recent study presented by Scientific American revealed that there is a relationship between what we consume and a series of genetic variants and dispositions.

Joane Cole led the research and through a large-scale genomics analysis, her team has identified 481 genome regions, or loci, that were directly linked to dietary patterns and food preferences. The findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, were presented last month at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual flagship conference

So when we crave either salty or sweet food, there is a scientific reason behind it.

But does food generate addiction?

It depends on how addiction is defined: if it is defined as a behavior characterized by the compulsive search for reward (pleasure) despite the harmful consequences that this behavior entails, it is reasonable to say that food, indeed, can generate addiction. Not necessarily in all individuals, but in individuals with a genetic predisposition (added to environmental factors that will trigger the manifestation of addiction) it does, just as it happens with other addictions. What generates the feeling of pleasure when eating highly-palatable foods – those rich in sugar, fat and salt – is the secretion of dopamine, serotonin and different cannabinoids in response to the consumption of these foods, which is known as the hedonic response to intake.

Are ultra-processed foods to blame for the increase in obesity?

Spain has an obesity rate of 54% – according to data from the latest European Health Survey.  If we focus on children, things don’t improve: four out of ten children are overweight and two out of ten are obese.

“Ultra-processed food is behind this country’s obesity problems,” says Javier García, food technologist. Not only in children, but also in young people. A 25-year-old who becomes independent and starts living on her own is more likely to eat things like Pot Noodles, which are a mixture of ultra-refined pasta with a flavor enhancer. You can call it what you want, but that’s not food. Want something fast? Open a can of spicy peppers and add another can of tuna; that’s fast food. But of course, the can of tuna and peppers together cost 3.20 euros. A Pot Noodle, a little over a euro.”

“It’s about becoming aware of what we are eating. On one end of the scale of food processing, we have the raw material, which come directly from their production and reach the consumer after minimal processing: fresh milk, fish from the sea, fruits, vegetables or vegetables. Then there are foods that are transformed a little more and that would be the first stage of processing: pasta, bread, olive oil, canned chickpeas, some frozen peas. But the bulk of this processed food continues to be the original raw material, because although they are processed, they have not touched the base of the food,” he says.

But ultra-processed foods do not have an original matrix. A cookie is not a food. You should avoid soft drinks, processed juices, industrial baked goods… “That accumulation of fats, sugars and salts is unhealthy. If you have smoked salmon toast with avocado and a peach, there are also fats and sugars in that, but the amount of nutrients it will contain compensates, distributes and manages that. If you eat a donut there is fat, sugar and salt but there is no compensation of nutrients.”

What parts of our body are damaged by the consumption of ultra-processed foods?

To think about its impact on health, we have to go back to those years of pink panthers and chocolate shakes: blessed is the pancreas and what it had to endure. An energy drink and a pack of Doughnuts means around 200 grams of sugar for the pancreas to process, which it may be able to once or twice but that in the long run and week after week, will overload it with fats and sugar to digest. Insulin skyrockets “and a metabolic alteration is created, which is called type 2 diabetes. The body develops excessive liver fat and this generates high cholesterol. This also causes cardiovascular problems because there is so much energy left over and the body accumulates it in the form of fat and that is why obesity, cardiovascular hypertension and type 2 diabetes are so associated with these types of ultra-processed products,” clarifies García, forcefully.

Cardiovascular diseases continue to be the leading cause of death in Spain. Therefore, this trick from nutritionist Andrea Sorinas is vital: “We must focus on consuming foods without labels and without a list of ingredients, fresh essential foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fresh eggs, meat and fish. A very easy rule of thumb is to avoid anything that contains more than three ingredients on its label.” Easy, right?

What measures are being taken against this problem?

With these obesity rates, it is worth asking what is being done or what measures are underway to alleviate this global health problem. Perhaps the solution would be to tax sugary drinks to subsidize fruit but the application of a tax on sugary drinks is on hold at the present moment. This is despite the fact that the Government announced this measure in December 2016, a tax that is in force in Catalonia, where soda cans cost 7% more than in the rest of Spain. Tax relief on fresh fruit and vegetables are not presently on the table either.

We discovered another eyebrow-raising fact. The most important companies that manufacture ultra-processed products are adhered to the Healthy Living Habits Plan (Havisa) of the Ministry of Health: a communication plan created to promote healthy living habits in the Spanish population.

The Spanish Ministry of Health recommend that a healthy balanced diet includes: ‘Eating breakfast every day, eating more fruit and vegetables, walk 30 minutes a day or take the stairs instead of the elevator’.  They also recommend a moderate consumption of salt, fats and sugar.  Their main aim is to “raise awareness of the importance of making healthy food choices to achieve a varied, balanced and moderate diet”.Although they recognize: “The reality is that our present diet is not balanced, with low consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fiber and a high consumption of salt, fats and added sugars, calories and with a nutritional quality that is increasingly distant from our traditional Mediterranean diet. We are abandoning our traditional diet and a sedentary lifestyle is acquiring an increasingly larger dimension in our work and leisure. However, obesity, being a multifactorial problem, needs a comprehensive, multidisciplinary and multisectoral approach: the entire society must be aware of this problem.”

If you are looking for some advice on a healthy balanced diet you can find a list of English-speaking healthcare professionals in the ESHA Spain business directory

Based on an original article in El Pais 

References in text

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