Home Health The truth about ultra-processed foods can be extremely complicated

The truth about ultra-processed foods can be extremely complicated

The truth about ultra-processed foods can be extremely complicated

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the most important stories and debates of the day.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.

What is going on

For decades, the question of whether food is healthy or not has largely focused on what’s in it: does it contain a lot of fiber and vitamins? Is there too much fat, salt or sugar?

But lately, many experts have come to believe that the way our food is made may be just as important as what it’s made of. With this updated way of looking at nutritional health, a new villain has emerged: .

Although there is no universal definition, ultra-processed foods are foods that have been heavily modified and often contain additives such as preservatives, artificial flavors and sweeteners. The term was first popularized by someone in 2009, who argued that food systems that look only at the composition of a food, such as the food pyramid, ignore critical differences in how different foods end up on our plates.

Because so much of what we eat is modified in some way, a huge range of foods can be. Most ‘junk foods’ (such as sweets and chips) fit comfortably into this category, but so do many products that the average consumer might not consider obviously unhealthy – including flavored yoghurts, plant-based milks and most breads you’ll find in your diet. come across the supermarket. the supermarket. One study estimated that this almost comes from ultra-processed foods.

Why there is discussion

A growing body of research shows that diets high in ultra-processed foods are linked to a wide range of health problems, including several types of , , and even . The challenge, however, is to determine whether these problems can be directly attributed to the way food is produced or whether they could be the result of other factors.

Some say there is plenty of evidence that ultra-processed foods are unhealthier, even when compared to foods with the exact same nutritional value. They claim that these products are specifically designed to trigger responses in our brains that promote overeating and often contain a host of artificial ingredients with effects on the body that we don’t yet fully understand.

But critics of this approach argue that these studies only confirm what we’ve known for decades: that diets high in fat, sugar and salt – which ultra-processed foods often contain – are unhealthy. There are also concerns that too much discussion about the dangers of ultra-processed foods may cause people to avoid generally healthy foods that happen to fit into that category, such as meat alternatives, various breads and even baby food.

Another source of debate is what to do with ultra-processed foods if they are considered dangerous. Many experts say a major reason they are so ubiquitous is that they are cheaper and more convenient than whole foods. They argue that large-scale changes to our food system are needed to ensure that everyone, not just those with lots of time and money, can eliminate these unhealthy products from their diets.

What’s next

Currently, the official U.S. government dietary guidelines do not take a position on ultra-processed foods. But experts are questioning whether the issue should be included in the next set of updated recommendations, expected to be released in 2025.


Ultra-processed foods are literally killing people

“Four of the six leading causes of death are related to an inadequate diet, which in the US is likely largely due to convenient, safe and cheap foods that we eat too much of.” – Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at Stanford University

It’s what’s in a food that matters, not how it’s made

“For example, if the problem with ultra-processed foods turns out to be the sugar and salt content, then the problem would be with sugar and salt, and not with whether we bought a burger from a fast food restaurant… or made our own burger . home.” – Beth Skwarecki,

Many ultra-processed foods aren’t actually food at all

“I was pretty sure junk food was bad. However, that didn’t stop me from eating it. Learning about UPF is a different experience; you start to realize that some of this stuff is hardly food.” –Helen Lewis,

Many healthy products are placed under such broad categories as junk food

“Even after more than ten years, there is still no clear definition. … This ambiguity has consequences: Consumers have become wary of all processed foods and are beginning to avoid frozen and canned foods, even though they are an affordable and healthy alternative to fresh produce.” —Günter Kuhnle,

The only thing we really know for sure is that unhealthy foods should obviously be avoided

“It is a science-backed measure to completely avoid sweetened drinks and obvious junk food. It’s also probably not great if most of your diet is ultra-processed, even if you select relatively healthy versions of these foods. Moreover, the data is muddy.” —Tim Requarth,

Governments must intervene to stop ultra-processed foods

“We must now consider using different strategies to reduce consumption. This also includes the adoption of new legislation and regulations. … Simply telling individuals to ‘be more responsible’ is unlikely to work, as Big Food spends billions each year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility.” – Phillip Baker, Mark Lawrence and Priscila Machado, the

Ranting about ultra-processed food doesn’t change the question of why people eat so much of it

“My interest in whether someone eats ultra-processed foods or not is pretty minimal. I don’t care if people want to eat it, that’s fine. What interests me is that they live in a world where they have the freedom to eat the food they want. I believe that real food should be cheap and available to everyone.” — Chris van Tulleken, author of ‘Ultra-Processed People’, on

There is no way we can overcome world hunger without ultra-processed food

“I’m all for a diet that consists mainly of whole foods. But when used properly and in moderation, processed foods can be a major boon to the global diet. Stigma against them hinders such efforts, so rather than shunning food processing, we should embrace it in the right context.” —Hannah Ritchie,

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.



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