Ultra-processed Food Really Is a Problem

March 24, 2024

Ultra-processed Food is a Real Problem

This has been a slippery question. What are ultra-processed foods and do they really make a problem? This column first reported the Brazilian studies that kicked off the discussion and identified ultra-processed food as an item of concern. There have been some studies refuting its risks.

This week's report is on the first meta-analysis (statistical distillation of all studies) of studies looking at the topic. Of over 4,500 articles, only 25 were found to have sufficient scientific rigor to be included. "A consistently positive association between high UPF intake and increased risk of developing diabetes (37%), hypertension (32%), hypertriglyceridemia (47%), low HDL cholesterol concentration (43%), and obesity (32%) was observed, even if the quality of evidence was not satisfying." It appears the tilt is developing, confirming the Brazilian's identification of risk.

What is the definition they used for ultra-processed food? Ultra-processed foods are: ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat industrial preparations made largely or entirely with substances extracted from food, often chemically modified, with additives, and with a small proportion of whole food. Therefore, the term "ultra-processed" includes soft drinks, packaged snacks, sugared breakfast cereals, cookies, processed meats, and packaged frozen or shelf-stable meals, but also flavored yogurts, low-calorie or low-fat products, breakfast cereals, and products "fortified" with beneficial nutrients. Oh dear. Sounds like the whole grocery store.

More simple definitions include: more than 3-4 ingredients, more than 2 steps away from the native food, wrapped in paper/plastic, added sugar, and processed fats. For example, fresh yogurt is minimally processed but cheeses have become ultra-processed because of the added salt, colorings etc. Whole grains are ok. You are allowed to remove the inedible husk of wheat, oats, rice. But once you grind it into flour, bread becomes ultra-processed. (I'm particularly annoyed at salted nuts being "ultra-processed) NOVA (not an acronym but the name given by the Brazilians for the food classification system) classification is pretty clear. 

What might be the physiological problem that this is trying to capture? There is now little debate about the risks. It's the rush of too many nutrients overwhelming our metabolic capability to properly process the calories. We get too much, too fast. It forces us to manufacture visceral fat, develop fatty liver, fatty pancreas, fatty heart. Visceral fat has been shown to be the driver of uncontrolled inflammation, yielding us with heart disease, cancer, arthritis, dementia and most of our degenerative diseases of aging. Bummer. Eating our modern, ultra-processed foods is the first domino of what has been an elusive search for causation. It's not the single item, it's the whole ecosystem. Our mitochondria are wonders of nature for their ability to convert food into metabolic fuel. But they are touchy little engines and get overwhelmed when we provide too much fuel, too fast, because we made it so concentrated, pure, varied. Too bad it tastes so good. Ice cream is on the list.

www.What will Work for me? How on earth am I meant to go on a road trip and not pick up McNuggets and a milkshake on my drive? I can't take a sandwich? I can't pick up a sub on the way? What this explains to me is why my grandparents, who kept gardens into their later years, eating most of their food from their own little plot, lived so well, so long. My father was planting his beans into his late 80s. If I look in my fridge, I have 3 containers of yogurts (at least two of them are simple, fresh, no additives) but I'm shamed by all the cheeses, ketchup, whipped cream in a can, soda....my fridge is a battlefield. Nature made me to eat foods in a fashion that we just aren't doing anymore. I'm in a sulk.

References: Advances in Nutrition, Public Health Nutrition, Curr Devel Nutr., World Nutrition, Am Jr Preventative Medicine,

Pop Quiz

1. Define in your own words what is an ultra-processed food?                          Answer: More than one step away from the plant, with any additives, particularly sugar or salt.


2. Is bread ultra-processed?                               Answer: Count the steps: Grind the flour (1), mix with yeast, sugar, preservatives, and bromine. (2). Put butter on it. (3). Yup. It's Ultra-Processed.

3. My yogurt with fruit is bad too?                      Answer: Count the ingredients. What's in my fridge has 13 ingredients. I don't know what two of them are. 

4. What is happening in my body when I eat this stuff?                        Answer: It is so refined and so purified, it rushes into me, overwhelming my ability to digest it in the fashion nature designed. My metabolism wants those calories delivered more slowly. Fiber helps. That "overwhelming" results in oxidative stress, and fat accumulation in problematic places.  That visceral fat is the secret inflammation engine that drives degenerative aging.

5. How do I get rid of visceral fat: aka, that poochy tummy of mine?                          Answer: No processed food. Just about all successful dietary plans start that.