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Ultra-processed foods: the truth about what we eat

Did we think we were eating food? Wrong. Immediately, in the preface of the book Ultra-processed foods Of Chris Van Tulleken, just came out for Vallardiit is clarified that «over the last 150 years food has transformed into something that is not food» and that «our calories increasingly come from modified starches, inverted sugars, hydrolyzed protein isolates and seed oils that have been refined, bleached, deodorized, hydrogenated, and interesterified”. And that «these calories have been assembled into mixtures using other molecules to which our senses have never been exposed: synthetic emulsifierslow-calorie sweeteners, stabilizing gums, humectants, aromatic compoundsdyes, color stabilizers, carbonizing, firming, volumizing and anti-foaming agents».

Welcome to the (horrible) world of «ultra-processed foods”, i.e. snacks, drinks, ready meals, sauces, packaged bread and so on. Foods we all eat (which make up the majority of our diet) that use additives, flavourings, preservatives, which are highly attractive and inexpensive. Their danger to our health is confirmed by numerous studies (the latest by Harvard) and the author of this book also confirms it. One of those that when reading it makes you want to open the fridge and pantry and clean out even the little that is there, even if you are very good at it, and choose only the best food. Do you have a packaged sauce or condiment on the side? (like myself?). In all likelihood it is better to throw them away immediately, at least this way you won't have to read the chapter that talks about fats.

Chris Van TulkenEnglish doctor, science communicator, teacher and TV presenter, takes us on a journey that is not so surprising (we couldn't think that ultra-processed foods could be good for us), but much more severe than we thought, answering the necessary questions: Why are processed foods bad for you? What exactly are they not good for? What processed foods do we eat? Why do we eat them? And finally what should we do and eat?

Chris, what do you mean by ultra-processed foods?
«Ultra-processed food is not a generic term, like junk food or fast food, but rather a complex scientific definition, which can be read on the United Nations website. On a generic level, however, I can summarize that if you read the list of ingredients of a product and see some that are not normally found in home kitchens, that is an ultra-processed food”

Is it just a question of ingredients?
«No, the ingredients and additives added tell you if a food is ultra-processed, basically they warn you that the food you are eating is produced by a company that is not interested in your health, but they are not the biggest problem. Ultra-processed food has high contents of salt, sugar and saturated fat, all conditions that expose you to heart problems, blood pressure problems and diabetes. This food is soft and full of calories, that is, it is a food that is eaten very quickly and pleasantly. The most immediate effect of ultra-processed food is to promote obesity, which is connected with the state of inflammation of our body and with tumor diseases. But there are other problems: the emulsifiers in ultra-processed food rub the intestine and make it permeable, the additives interact with the microbiome. This packaged bread you see on the cover of the book can be harmful in 10 different ways and at the same time it is also very low in nutrients. The further problem of ultra-processed food, in fact, is not only that it is bad for you, but that it replaces real food, the one that has nutrients and is good for you.”

Ultra-processed foods. How to recognize and avoid the unsuspected enemies of our health

What are the foods that came out worst in your studies?
«It's difficult to say, products like Coca Cola, chocolate bars, or sweets, don't have good ingredients, but we eat less of them. Packaged bread, for example, has some more fiber, but you eat more of it. What I could say is that the most dangerous food is that which pretends to be healthy, breakfast cereals, children's yoghurt, ready meals, packaged wholemeal bread.”

In fact, it is interesting to point out that ultra-processed foods can also be those that we think are “better”
«A good rule is that if there are health claims on the package, such as “rich in fiber”, “good for the intestines”, then it is most likely ultra-processed. I'll give you my favorite example: my children's cereals (and shows them to me on his phone, they're Coco Pops), on the package they wrote “source of vitamins and iron”, “resource of fiber”, there is a nice little monkey on the package and some nice bright colors, but it is a food that is not good for your health at all. The fact is that the intent of those who produce this food is to make money, and therefore it is to take your money, not to feed you. They use the cheapest ingredients and thanks to the additives and flavorings they make you addicted to the food they make.”

Reading labels is therefore increasingly important. Which words, upon reading them, should make us immediately desist from buying a product?
«The foods that I immediately avoid buying for my children are those that contain emulsifiers, sweeteners and sweeteners. And also the flavourings, not because they are harmful in themselves but because they cause your body to be attracted and deceived into continuing to eat that product.”

In practice, without the flavorings and colorings, would many of these foods be inedible?
“Yes. Colors and flavors are not directly harmful, but they make you eat a product that is not real food. Without the colourants, the sliced ​​bread would not be golden brown but grey, the ice cream certainly does not have the colors in which they sell it, in addition to the fact that in order to be soft and creamy, and not to melt, it is made up of various types of gum which make it frothy. And so in yogurt, which is full of corn starch, which is less expensive than milk fat, but has a similar flavor and gives creaminess.”

Is the choice of large food companies always a choice of cost to the detriment of quality?
«In the majority of cases yes. To choose which packaged pizza to put on the market, taste tests are done with different pizzas and the one that is least expensive is chosen, but also the one that is most popular and is eaten fastest, regardless of whether it has real cheese on it or not, and how much fat it has. , how many preservatives. This pizza will cost little when we buy it today, but tomorrow we will pay for it with our health, with pandemics, with the climate crisis and plastic pollution. Because this is also what ultra-processed foods do, they are one of the main causes of climate change.”

On the other hand, the low price at which processed foods are sold is one of the reasons why they are bought. Should we finally start thinking that it is better to eat less but healthier, spending a little more?
«I don't have an opinion on what people should eat, or how much they should spend. I think we should have the right to have information about what we eat and I think that good food should not cost more than bad food. That is, the government should raise the cost of bad food with taxes and lower the cost of the real thing. The root of the problem is poverty, I am not an extreme socialist or an anti-capitalist, but we live in a food system that pushes the poorest people to eat poorly.”

So the solution should be governmental, but there is a lot of interference from the food industry
«In England, but I imagine it is the same for Italy too, many of the people who control policies regarding subsidies, labelling, nutritional advice, are paid by the food industry. In the UK, 7 out of 14 people on the government's nutrition committee are funded by the food industry, from Coca Cola to Pepsi. And so university research departments are funded by the food industry and the number of truly free scientists is very small.”

What is a healthy food? What should we eat?
«I don't want to say what a person should do, I can say that if a food is produced and sold by a large food company it is most likely ultra-processed, while cooking at home with fresh ingredients is certainly healthier. I have a purpose: my desire is that ultra-processed food should have warnings on the packaging explaining the risks of eating it (as happens in Chile, Argentina, and other South American countries), and that it doesn't cost much less than healthy food”.

How and why was your book born?
«I would like my book, in England as I hope also in Italy, to serve to create an awareness in consumers which will force food companies to change, and will push governments to act. Acting today on the food we eat will save a lot in terms of national health in the future and people's happiness. It is a difficult and complex change of vision, but I believe in social justice and it is a necessary change.”

Me too, and thank you

Ultra-processed foods the truth about what we eat

Source: Vanity Fair

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