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  • Writer's pictureLisa Magnuson

Processed foods and you

A new term started popping up in news articles- "ultraprocessed food". This caught my attention because I hadn't heard it before and I wondered what the "ultra" part meant.

After reading a few of the articles, I quickly came to understand that ultraprocessed foods (UPF's) are just what we used to consider processed foods, however there is a new hierarchy of foods I was unaware of. There are four tiers to label foods- unprocessed, minimally processed, processed and ultraprocessed.

Unprocessed and minimally processed are things we all know we should eat- fresh fruits and veggies, rice, quinoa, chicken, eggs, and fish to name a few. Processed foods are oils, butter, sugar, dairy products, some canned foods and smoked meat and fish. The ultraprocessed foods are usually found in packages, and have ingredients you wouldn't find at home- hydrogenated oils, chemical additives like emulsifiers, and artificial sweeteners and preservatives. These foods can often be labeled as healthy, or low fat, or sugar-free as a way to trick consumers into thinking they are "healthy", but they are anything but. Some simple examples are vegan burgers, packaged granola, protein bars, and diet soda. Pretty much everything you get in a fast food restaurant is also ultraprocessed.

We all know this type of food is not good for us, BUT the marketing tricks that the companies use are confusing and misleading and the food tastes REALLY good, it's almost addictive. This is of course by design, they purposefully make the food hyper-palatable by adding all sorts of chemicals that trick our brains into craving more of the food. So even if we know we shouldn't eat more, we have a hard time counteracting the strong influence of the food itself. It's genius as far as the big food corporations are concerned, however it's also insidious and it's taking a toll on our health.

We have known for years that these types of food wreak havoc on our waistlines and are known to increase the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Interestingly however, recent studies have pointed to a connection between eating UPF's and mental health implications, like cognitive decline as well as depressed mood and anxiety. It isn't completely clear as to why eating such foods cause this effect, but some guesses are the gut/brain connection and lack of fiber in the diet. Fiber is abundant in whole foods (and usually non-existent in UPF's) and it feeds the good gut bacteria and also helps in the production of short-chain fatty acids which play an important role in brain function. Also, the chemical additives and artificial sweeteners commonly found in UPF's can negatively impact the gut microbiome, leading to chronic inflammation.

So if there wasn't enough proof to steer clear of ultraprocessed foods, I believe we have even more reason now to reach for the apple instead of the granola bar. Remember, if it comes in a wrapper, 90% of the time it's not actually healthy, no matter what it says on the label.

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