By Claire McDonnell Liu, Nutritionist at Leafie.org
Most Australians, around four out of five of us, eat highly processed junk foods every day according to CSIRO Healthy Diet Score survey.
By the time food reaches our plate most has been processed in some way. Health advice agrees, we must eat less processed food for our longterm health but the term ‘processed’ is a confusingly broad.
Some foods are much more processed than others. A bag of salad or peeled and pre-cut carrot sticks count as processed foods but they remain close to their natural state, they have only been minimally processed for convenience or to preserve freshness. The concern isn’t over minimally processed foods, like the cut carrots, frozen peas or tinned tomatoes, but over ultra-processed foods (UPF).
Australians eat an enormous amounts of ultra-processed convenience foods, and now class many of them as family staples, including cereals, pasta, sizzlers, sweetened drinks, cooking sauces and much more. In fact research shows that more than half of family foods are ultra-processed.
What is Food Processing?
Food processing itself is not the problem. We have been processing food for over a million years, to make foods more nutritious, long-lasting, edible and tasty. Drying, fermenting, chopping, crushing, cooking, soaking and other techniques allowed our ancestors to live in diverse habitats, develop settlements and survive through periods of food decline and regrowth.
Ultra-processed foods usually involve multiple processes that can’t be recreated at home, such as hydrogenation, extrusion, moulding and pre-processing. They contain five or more ingredients, provide little to no nutritional value and the original ingredients don’t look like their natural ingredients. For example tinned sweetcorn is minimally processed, whereas ultra-processed corn tortillas, corn chips and cereals are far removed from the original corn.
They are often cheap to produce at scale, are designed to last, are convenient to transport, serve and eat, and are engineered to taste delicious. These foods are awful for our health, research links them to weight gain, obesity, heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancers, depression and death.
Junk Food Explosion
Families trying to cut down or avoid altogether have their work cut out. Junk food availability has dramatically increased over years, from a few hundred items in the 1960s to tens of thousands now available.
Supermarkets devote many isles to convenience, such as cereals, sweetened drink, cakes, pastries, ready meals, jar sauces, dips, meat products, margarines etc. In fact ultra-processed convenience foods make up the great majority of food and drink products available in many food stores.
Convenience foods are designed to appeal, with attractive packaging, intensive and at times unscrupulous marketing. Added sugar, additives, preservatives, flavourings, poor quality fats and textures engineered to make them highly tempting. Whilst the ‘Big Food’ industry employs highly aggressive marketing and lobbying to ensure the prevalence of their products.
Campaigner and former Registered Nurse, Belinda Fettke, shares here research into food industry tactics.
Belinda Fettke ‘Nutritional Science: How did we get here?
Our new normal of convenience foods on a regular or daily basis has the potential to cause hormonal, gut bacteria and metabolic disfunction that could lead to serious health consequences over time.
These foods are often nutritionally depleted and are made with excessive added sugar, salt, additives, preservatives, and poor quality fats. Eating convenience foods regularly may displace eating fresh whole nutrient dense foods, which may leave the body unsatisfied and potentially malnourished over time. While specific industrially produced ingredients and food additives have also been linked to inflammation and wider health issues.
But it is not only the poor nutrient profile or the cocktail of high sugar, salt, industrial fats and additives. Many junk foods are made from highly refined carbohydrates, as well as added sugar. Both these fast-acting carbohydrates can quickly elevate glucose and insulin hormones causing unstable blood sugar levels, particularly as they lack nutrients and fibre that would slow their breakdown. Unstable blood sugar levels can result in irritability, fatigue, headaches, brain fog and cravings for even more sugary and high carb foods.
This modern avalanche of convenience foods is a huge factor in the increase in preventable disease. Changed social norms, aggressive marketing, food industry lobbying and the overwhelming availability of accessible junk foods makes for a perfect storm. Leaving concerned individuals and families with an uphill battle to refrain from quick food fixes long term.