Global impact of Ultra-Processed foods

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The education and policies of nutrition and human health have conventionally been based on basic nutrients (sodium, saturated fats etc.) or on types of foods (fruits, vegetables, red meat). These methods  are inadequate and misleading because they are based on a narrow vision of nutrition (in which food are seen as the mere sum of nutrients), neglect the role of modern industrial food processing and its impact on diet and the dynamic complexity of the human body. Industrial food processing is now the main driving force of the global food system, and it is significantly affecting middle-and low-income countries.

The most striking change in our current food systems is the displacement of dietary patterns based on meals and dishes prepared from unprocessed or minimally processed foods by those that are increasingly based on ultra-processed food and drink products. The result is diets with excessive energy density, high in free sugars and unhealthy fats and salt, and low in dietary fiber. This increases the risk of obesity and other diet-related non communicable diseases ("DNCDs")

Ultra-processed food and drink products are industrial formulations manufactured from substances derived from foods or synthesized from other organic sources. They are inventions of modern industrial food science and technology. Most of these products contain little or no whole food. They are ready-to-consume or ready-to heat, and thus require little or no culinary preparation.

Some substances used to make ultra-processed products, such as fats, oils, starches, and sugar, are directly derived from foods. Others are obtained through the further processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenation of oils (which generates toxic trans fats), hydrolysis of proteins, and “purification” of starches. The great majority of ingredients in most ultra-processed products are additives (binders, bulkers, colors, emulsifiers, flavors, preservatives, sensory enhancers, solvents, stabilizers, and sweeteners). Ultra-processed products are often bulked with air or water. Synthetic micronutrients may be added to “fortify” them.

Examples of ultra-processed products include chips (crisps) and many other types of fatty, salty, or sweet packaged snack products; ice-cream, chocolate, and candies (confectionery); packaged breads, buns, cookies (biscuits), pastries, and cakes; sweetened breakfast cereals; energy bars; preserves; margarines; carbonated drinks and energy drinks; sugar-sweetened milk drinks, including fruit yogurt drinks; fruit and fruit nectar drinks; cocoa drinks; infant formulas, follow- on milks, and other baby products; and “health,” and “slimming” products such as powdered or “fortified” meal and dish substitutes. Ultra-processed ready-to-heat or ready-to-consume products are now very commonly consumed at home or at fast-food outlets. These foods, also known as “ready-meals”, include reconstituted and pre-prepared meat, seafood, vegetable, or cheese dishes; pizza; burgers and hot dogs; French fries (chips); poultry and fish nuggets or sticks (fingers); and powdered and packaged soups, noodles, and desserts. They often appear to be much the same as home-cooked meals or dishes, but their ingredients lists show that they are not. 

Bomi Joseph