Ultra-Processed Foods: Because Why Live Long When You Can Live Large?

Published by Rebecca Baron on

Ultra Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods have become daily staples in the name of convenience, yet new research shows their alarming link to chronic disease. Nearly all packaged food contains some sort of inflammatory ingredient these days, causing inflammation and oxidative stress. In this article, we will explore the latest research on ultra-processed foods, and their impact on our health.

Buyer Beware. Where there once was a time where shelf-stable foods would highly praised and sought after, nowadays cause more harm than good. Disease by diet has been on the rise since the introduction of ultra-processed foods. In fact, nearly every tribe or civilization introduced to ultra-processed foods would later see an increase of lifestyle related illness in their youth and future generations.

Our consumption with ultra-processed foods have grown alongside our industry, yet our bodies struggle to adapt to these new foods and food like substances.

Reasearch is starting to see the implications of becoming an ultra-processed society. Despite their labels suggestion of their product being a “good source” of this or that, fortified foods pale in comparison to the real deal.

Ultra Processed Foods

Ultra-Processed Foods

Why Should We Avoid Ultra-Processed Food?

Time is money in our bustling society, and we choose convenience without understanding the bigger price we pay. Unfortunately, these kinds of foods have become daily staples throughout the industrialized world. The problem is the ultra-processing effects on the foods we eat, and their impact on our health. Some experts argue that ultra-processed foods can’t even be called food, but “food like products.”


In a comprehensive analysis of 43 studies, an overwhelming 37 out of the 43 revealed a significant association between dietary consumption of ultra-processed foods and various adverse health outcomes. These findings underscore the wide-ranging impact of ultra-processed foods on adult health, with documented links to conditions such as overweight, obesity, and cardio-metabolic risks.

What’s makes a food ultra-processed?

Processed foods are foods that have undergone some processing. This can include cutting, salting, canning or freezing of foods to extend shelf life. Think canned or frozen vegetables, minimally cured meat, bread, and pasta products.

Processed foods have been in our diets for centuries. Salting meat or the simple act of bread making is an example of processing foods. Taking a grain and milling it into a flour, combining it with other ingredients and then baking it with fire; civilization flourished alongside agriculture and the preservation of food.

What we used to consider as processed foods have changed over the last 30 years. Convenience foods made with simple ingredients suddenly became ultra-processed franken foods. Foods created in a lab by a team of food engineers and scientists, these perfectly packaged goods take factor everything ranging from uniformity to craveability. Craveability- when did THAT become a word? (You can thank food marketers for that.)

What makes these kinds of foods different from ultra-processed foods is the extent of processing and the kinds of ingredients used.

Ultra-processed foods go through intense industrial processing, such as adding of emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial flavors and ingredients. Some reasons for this is to extend the shelf life of foods. Some reasons can be to reduce costs by using cheaper products. Lab-crafted by teams of food scientists, figuring out all the little details to a perfectly packaged addictive product.

Ultra-processed foods are highly palatable products, packed with calories, chemicals, and nearly null of nutrients.

Think of Sunday lasagna. If your Nonna makes the tomato sauce and lasagna noodles from scratch, it’s processed. If she uses store bought, or say she skips cooking altogether and opts for a frozen lasagna, those additives and preservatives give you an ultra-processed dinner.

Examples of Ultra-Processed Foods

Deli MeatsDonutsChicken Nuggets & Tenders
Bacon/Hot DogsPackaged sweetsPrepackaged soups/meals
CandyBreakfast CerealsFrozen Dinners
Energy DrinksHigh Fructose Corn SyrupInstant Noodles
All sodasPotato ChipsMeal Replacement Bars/Shakes
Ultra Processed Foods
Photo by: Alexander Grey

We need to rethink food.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to heightened risks of developing serious illnesses like cancer, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, ultra-processed foods have been implicated in the exacerbation of irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and metabolic health. This greatly impacts adults, but children are not immune to the effects on ultra-processed foods. In ways, it’s even worse for kids because they start off on these foods more than previous generations.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the consumption of these highly processed foods has shown increased associations in overall mortality, urging a need to reshape our views on convenience foods.

Ultra-Processed Foods and its Link to Obesity

There are many elements at play in our country’s ongoing obesity epidemic. Research even indicates that we don’t eat more calories than previous generations, making experts question our diets. Food has changed, not only in portion size but ingredients.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a perfect example of an ultra-processed food. Invented in 1957 but not marketed until the 1970’s. Before its creation, food manufacturers used sucrose, molasses, and even beet sugar to sweeten food. Thanks to farm subsidies on corn, HFCS became a cheaper alternative due to surplus of growth manipulating the price of cane sugar. Slowly but surely, food companies began to change their formulas. Coca-cola began producing their products with high fructose corn syrup around 1985. Now it’s in almost everything!

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A study was conducted in 2017 aimed at high fructose-corn syrup. Their data suggest that high-fructose corn syrup can help cause metabolic disorders and impaired dopamine function.

Obesity and metabolic disease have sky-rocketed since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup into the food supply. High-fructose corn syrup works differently in our bodies than sugar and is hard on the liver to process. Made from GMO corn, containing pesticides known to interfere with DNA synthesis. Not only is it highly caloric with no nutritional value, but ultra-processed and chemical ladened. Ultra-processed sounds good, but is not!

Ultra-processed foods are designed to be addictive and often use additives known to contribute to weight gain. Notorious for being made up mostly with dead calories, with cheaper ingredients to maximize profits. They made not be intentionally made to make us pack on weight, but that’s what they happen to do.

Obesogens

Obesogens are food additives that seem to have an effect on appetite regulation and metabolic processes. They are regularly used in ultra-processed foods, such as sauces and salad dressings. Even household products like air fresheners and beauty supplies made with parabens and phthalates.

A study done in Poland back in 2019 explored how obesogenic chemicals interfered with energy homeostasis. Their studied concluded that obesogens have multi-factored detriment to metabolic health, including appetite cues and adipose (fat) tissue function. They concluded the obesity epidemic is not an issue of over-eating and lack of exercise, and strongly encouraged limited exposure to these types of ultra-processed ingredients.

Binge Eating
Photo by Tim Samuel

Examples of Obesogens

  • Trans Fats
  • MSG (mono-sodium glutamate)
  • Emulsifiers
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Artificial Sweeteners (stevia* and monkfruit* are exceptions)

If you want to lose weight, you will need to ditch these ingredients. Give your body a chance to reset your hormones by ditching all obesogenic ingredients and see the difference it makes for you. After readjusting your taste buds and gut biome, every now and then you can splurge. Your body will then be stronger and more insulin sensitive.

Thankfully there has been greater awareness in the last few years, there are better products starting to come on the market that avoid using these obesogenic additives.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer

Junk food is bad for us, is that really news? Well, ultra-processed foods and the chemicals used are turning out to be a lot unhealthier than previously thought, with numerous studies linking these substances to higher rates of cancer.

Published in Clinical Nutrition April 2021, a case control study based in 12 provinces in Spain recorded the diets of men and woman ranging from 20-85 years of age. Their research over the course of the study found a correlation between ultra-processed food and increase rates of breast, prostate, and colon-rectal cancers. They even emphasized in their closing remarks that processing methods should be considered in dietary recommendations and public policy.

Ever since the introduction to packaged ultra-processed foods, we the public have been unaware guinea pigs. With each generation, life expectancy decreases alongside an increase of chronic illness. Children born after 2000 are expected to live shorter and poorer than their preceding generation, early onset of ultra-processed foods and obesity being contributing factors to the issue.

People especially in lower socio-economic areas are prone to higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. An ever-growing, but never changing vicious cycle.

Ultra Processed Foods Pack a Double Punch

Ultra-processed foods can cause obesity, and obesity is the 2nd leading likely indicator of developing cancer. Not so much because of obesity, which is more of a symptom of a larger condition such as insulin resistance and chronic inflammation. The Lacent published a large study back in 2023 involving over 260,000 people throughout Europe. Of that study, 60% were women. All participants were screened for chronic illnesses before starting the study; their dietary intake was logged and evaluated over 10 years. When performing follow up tests 11.2 years later, the researchers found that 39% of the participants had some form of cancer and cardiometabolic disease.

They concluded in the study that higher intake of ultra-processed foods increased the occurrence of multimorbidity. Multimorbidity is the co-occurrence of at least 2 chronic diseases such as: cancer at any site, cardiovascular disease, or type-2 diabetes.

The most noteworthy foods in their findings? Well that included ultra-processed animal- based products, sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages. The research also gave mentioned packaged breads, pastry, and cereals as contributors to multimorbidity.

Have we made our point clear?

Related Reading: 4 Ways to Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

Who’s held responsible, company or consumer?

Should companies be allowed to make addictive ultra-processed food products, and profit off our lack of information? How savvy of consumers do we need to be today to ensure we eat food that is at least not harmful to our bodies? Is it audacious to expect better quality along with the increasing prices? If cereal is close to $7 a box, then it should at least be free of cancer-causing ingredients. This is why many mindful consumers are turning to alternative products or ditching packaged food altogether.

It seems the greatest way to demand change, is with purchasing power. Stop buying ultra-processed products altogether. Preparing most of our food on our own may take more time but is less expensive pays off in the long haul. We have to ask ourselves at what price do we decide to pay for short term convenience with long term consequences?

A Return to Real Food

The difference between whole foods and ultra-processed foods is that fruits and vegetables have ingredients that protect or fight against cancer. Diets high in fruits and vegetables, and low in processed and conventional red meat has been found to be lower risk of colon-rectal cancer.

It almost feels like you have to make everything from scratch to avoid its ultra-processed counterpart. Although that can be more time and labor intensive, it can pay off in the long run.

Return to Home Cooking
Photo by Antoni Shkraba

A life of longevity with less risk of chronic illness is rooted in basic nutrition principles. Eat at least 5 servings of fresh vegetables and fruit daily, avoid smoking, alcohol, and junk food.

An overall way to reduce your overall cancer risk is to reduce intake of ultra-processed foods. It goes beyond “moderation” in this day of age, you need to be more proactive. Aim for an 80/20 or 90/10 if you’re really feeling ambitious. If you are eating predominantly whole foods, your body will be able to handle the occasional indulgence.

With a little practice, almost anyone can follow a recipe and learning to make new foods can be a fun experience.

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