Ultra-processed food may be cheaper for companies to make. But might you end up paying for it in the end? Two observational studies recently published in the BMJ add to growing concerns that ultra-processed food may be the opposite of ultra-good-for-you. One of these studies found that men in the U.S. who had regularly consumed more ultra-processed food were more likely to have developed colorectal cancer. The other study revealed that those in Italy who had maintained diets high in ultra-processed food were more likely to have died earlier. This ain’t ultra-great news considering what a study published in an October 2021 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found: from 2001-2002 to 2017-2018 ultra-processed food and beverage consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in Americans’ diets to 57 percent.
Ultra-processed food is to processed food what plastic surgery is to bedazzling. The prefix “ultra” may be positive when it comes to ultrasonic, ultrasexy, or Ultraman. But “ultra-processed” is worst of the four NOVA classifications of food and drink products.
Group 1 of the NOVA classification is unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These are what you tend to see in the produce section, assuming no one is pressing, grinding, or throwing salt on your apples.
The second NOVA group is the “processed culinary ingredients” category, which are essentially Group 1 foods that have been under a little pressure, so to speak. They may have gone through some pressing, refining, grinding, milling, spray drying, or similar processes that don’t really alter the product’s nutritional content.
Group 3 consists of “processed foods,” where sugar, oil, salt or other group 2 substances are added to group 1 foods. In most cases, processed foods don’t tend to have more than two to three ingredients.
And finally there is Group 4, the “ultra-processed foods” category, which basically consists of “industrial formulations” with typically five or more ingredients. These are the foods where you look at the ingredients list and may have to say things like, “mono- what? Mononucleosis? Mono the lead singer for U2?” You may see ingredients like casein, lactose, whey, gluten, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar, or various types of syrup. Such ingredients significantly alter the properties of the food or beverage like changing its appearance, color, taste, smell, or texture. Often, the percentage of original, natural food present is very small, even when the packaging says “all natural,” which can like covering yourself with dirt for a first date and calling yourself a “natural wonder.”
With so much added stuff, is it any wonder that ultra-processed foods may not be good for your health-wise? These two new studies published in BMJ were observational cohort studies, meaning that the researchers observed groups of people over time and compared what happened to those who had consumed different amounts of ultra-processed food. So take each of these studies with a handful of salt, which if they were foods would land them in the NOVA Group 3. Such studies are rather limited in that they can only show possible associations or correlations and can not prove cause-and-effect.
The U.S.-based study analyzed what had happened to three large cohorts: 46,341 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study conducted from 1986 through 2014, 67, 425 women from the Nurses’ Health Study conducted from 1986 through 2014, and 92,482 women from the Nurses’ Health Study II conducted from 1991 through 2015. None of the participants had cancer when they started the study. Participants completed food consumption questionnaires every four years to get a sense of what they had been eating and how often. Ultimately, 1294 men and 1922 women ended up having documented cases of colorectal cancer over the 24 to 28 years that they were followed. of follow-up. The 20% of men who had consumed the highest amount of ultra-processed food were 29% more likely to have developed colorectal cancer than the 20% who had consumed the least. The study didn’t find such an association among women.
The Italy-based study followed 22,895 people, 48% of whom were men, and determined how their answers on dietary questionnaires correlated with their death rates over time. During the study period, which totaled 272,960 person years of follow-up, 2205 people ended up dying. Those who had the highest intake of ultra-processed foods were 19% more likely to have died in general and 27% more likely to have died from cardiovascular disease than the 25% of people who had consumed the least ultra-processed foods.
Again, these two studies did not prove that ultra-processed foods were causing colorectal cancer or earlier death. There could be other explanations. For example, someone consuming lots of ultra-processed foods may be more likely to have other not-so-healthy habits. Nevertheless, you’ve got to wonder what putting so-called Frankenfoods in your mouth may be doing to your body. (In this case, Franken is a references to Frankenstein, the fictional scientist who created a monster, and not former Minnesota Senator Al Franken.)
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