Why UPFs Are Scarier Than UFOs

First, there were processed foods. Now there are ultra-processed foods. Despite the way it sounds, this is definitely not a step in the right direction. Where processing made food safer, ultra processing can literally shorten your life.

So, let’s define our terms: Processed foods are foods that have been changed from their natural state, and we’ve been processing for hundreds of thousands of years. Early on, processing was a good thing. Cave dwellers pounded and ground food, and then really got a boost when they figured out how to use fire. Cooking reduced pathogens in food and made many things easier to digest. Score one for heat processing! Many thousands of years later, salting and fermenting gave early man (and woman) the ability to store food, which really helped during times when access was limited. Later pasteurization and enrichment saved us from disease and malnutrition.

By the end of World War II food processing was in full swing. The food industry had upped its game with somewhat less noble goals. Initially Americans were slow to embrace processed foods because just after World War II Americans still put a high value on home-cooked meals. No problem for the food industry. Corporate marketers invented characters like Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, cooking contests and cookbooks, to give the illusion that processed foods were just like food cooked at home. Of course, the processed foods offered something, or some things extra. They were loaded with salt, sugar, and fat – all bad for us and all, as it turns out, quite addictive. Americans fell in love with “convenience foods,” and nothing was ever the same.

It turns out humans are genetically predisposed, to crave sugar. This is because once upon a time, getting quick, concentrated calories like those in sugar increased our likelihood of survival. When food was scarce, we needed to hang on to those calories so we would have enough energy to function. We have the same long-term relationship with fat, which has even more calories than sugar. Add some salt to the mix and the processed food industry won us over with food we were guaranteed to find totally irresistible. This was the beginning of ultra-processing, altering foods for reasons other than safety and stability.
Today, the food industry employs food scientists and flavor companies to meticulously engineer processed foods to maximize their addictive qualities so that processed foods enter our mouths but take hold of our brains. Once we really understand the control food companies exert upon us, we may begin to find ultra-processed food somewhat less appealing.

Sugar Addiction: Fact and Fiction

Added sugar may be the single worst aspect of the ultra-processed food diet. That’s because sugar changes the hormones and biochemistry of your body when consumed in excess. Studies show sugar releases opioids and dopamine into our brains in the same way addictive drugs do. But sugar has an edge over alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine and other drugs, because it makes us feel good faster. Drugs and tobacco have to get into our bloodstream in order to travel up to the brain, but food has a direct path to the brain, through our taste buds, that maximizes its speed. By way of comparison, the smoke from cigarettes (often considered more addictive than cocaine) takes ten seconds to stir the brain, but a touch of sugar on the tongue will do so in a little more than half a second. Like addictive drugs, added sugar creates addictive behaviors and consequences like cravings, binging, withdrawal, and desensitization. That means over time, we need more sugar to get the same good feeling.

Who Took the Food Out of Our Food?

The answer to that question, of course, is the ever-advancing ultra-processed “food” industry. There is very little actual food in ultra-processed food. Maybe it should be called “processed flavor delivery systems.” Manufacturers are learning new, low-cost ways to manufacture foods designed to be cheap, last long on the shelf and taste so delicious that they are hard to resist. Most processed foods today don’t resemble whole foods at all. These highly processed foods are often little more than refined ingredients mixed with additives to extend shelf-life.
Look closely at your next package of American cheese. Does it say, “cheese food” or “cheese product” on the label or just “cheese?” First of all, American cheese is always processed, because it is a mixture of cheeses, including cheddar, Colby, and others. But unless the package says, “pasteurized process cheese,” it is not 100% cheese.
Next time you are at the market, look at all the packages of American cheese. “Pasteurized process cheese” is often hard to find. Most packages use the words “cheese food,” or “cheese product.” Cheese “food,” according to the FDA has to include 51% cheese. The cheese “product” label goes on anything with less than 51% cheese. Cheese product could actually have no cheese at all! So what is replacing the cheese? Well, that depends but it usually looks something like this: Water, Salt, Artificial Coloring, Flavorings, Lecithin, Enzyme Modified Cheese, Dehydrated Cream, Anhydrous Milk-fat, Phosphoric Acid, Albumin from cheese whey, Acetic Acid, Monosodium Phosphate, Potassium Citrate, Sodium Tartrate, Potassium Sorbate, etc. If you were a food chemist, you’d notice that these added ingredients amount to added salt and fat, along with ingredients designed to extend the shelf life of the “cheese.” If you look at the nutritional information on many cheese products or cheese foods, you will also see that they contain grams of sugar. There is no sugar in real cheese, but these processed cheeses generally contain the trifecta of addictive properties: salt, sugar, and fat. It’s no wonder that children brought up on processed cheese product have a hard time developing a taste for real cheese – the kind that has nutritional value.
The problem is that the more processed food we eat, the farther away we get from whole foods. Because of this, our tastes begin to change, and we forget what real food tastes like. Instead, we eat highly engineered products, literally designed to get people hooked.

“Healthy” Ultra-processed Food

Junk food producers get a little agitated when consumers become more informed about, and interested in, the health consequences of certain substances. But with scientists and marketers on their teams, these companies easily pivot and manage to take advantage of these trends. Their tactics can get unethical at times, and they sometimes try to market very unhealthy products as healthy foods. For example, during the early 1990s, when consumers began to believe that the best way to achieve or maintain a healthy weight was to cut down on fat, food manufacturers pushed out bunches of new, no, or low-fat formulations. But understanding that humans love sugar as much (if not more) than we love fat, they replaced the fat in these products with a lot more sugar. It kept us craving the low fat/fat-free food, and the products were not one bit healthier than they were before.
Protein has been the foundation for many popular diets through the years, like the Atkins, Paleo and Keto diets. By 2015, the idea of protein being healthy and tied to more controlled eating had gained traction with a broad population of consumers. The food companies sprang into action to capitalize on this and started adding some protein to their snack foods. The same thing happened when fiber started getting good PR. You could find “high protein” and “high fiber” snacks up and down the supermarket aisles. The problem is, not only are there no clear guidelines about what is “high” when it comes to the amount of protein and fiber in food, but even with the high protein or fiber, the newly formulated foods still have overwhelming amounts of sugar, fat, and salt. These ingredients mitigate any real health value the new foods provide and can be a nightmare for those of us trying to control our weight.
There are very few processed food companies who will not try to claim health benefits if they can.  Unless we are talking about frozen fruits or vegetables, very few of those claims will be true.
The fact is that ultra-processed foods have enough sugar, salt and fat to keep us coming back for more, but not enough protein and fiber to fill us up. Remember the potato chip commercial that challenged, “I bet you can’t eat just one?” All that salt and fat (and even some sugar) made that a sucker’s bet.
For people who are prone to food addiction, eliminating refined sugar completely is likely the only way to solve the problem of uncontrolled junk food consumption. For the rest of us, raised awareness may be enough to help us reset our eating patterns so that we are much less likely to fall into a sugar trap. If we understand the nature of our bodies’ reactions to the sugar, salt, and fat in processed foods, and still want to include some in our diets, we need to eat them mindfully at times when they are least likely to cause binge-eating. For example, if you eat a couple of Oreos after a dinner that includes protein and fiber, you are likely to get plenty of opioids and dopamine, but the satiety produced by the rest of the meal will allow you to put the package away. If you try to eat two Oreos as an afternoon snack, there is a very good chance you will eat a whole row, or the whole package. The sugar, salt, and fat in the cookies will stimulate your brain’s pleasure centers, but two cookies, or even five cookies, won’t make your pretty empty stomach feel full, so you will be helpless against their engineered charms.

The Bottom Line on Processed Foods 

  1. Added Sugars and Fats: Many processed foods are high in sugars and unhealthy fats. Eating a lot of these can cause weight gain since they are packed with calories but don’t make you feel full.
  2. Low in Nutrients: Processed foods often lack nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These are essential for a healthy body. Without them, you may end up eating more overall, seeking the nutrients your body needs.
  3. Addictive Qualities: Some studies suggest that processed foods with lots of sugar and fat can have addictive qualities, making you crave them more. This can lead to eating them in excess.
  4. Accessibility and Convenience: Processed foods are usually easy to find and prepare, making them an appealing option. However, this convenience can lead to a pattern of eating that focuses on these calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.
This doesn’t mean all processed foods are bad; some can be part of a generally healthy diet. But next time you find yourself reaching for a snack cake or a bag of chips, sneak a peek at the ingredients. The idea is to understand the nutritional value of the ultra-processed foods you think you can’t live without, and you may find yourself wanting to replace the rest with actual food!

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