The Epidemic of Ultra-Processed Foods

Source: BANT

By Sonali Vardhan

You are what you eat, and around 70% of an average American diet is made up of nutritional, ultra-processed foods. Although not all processed foods are inadequate, ultra-processed foods are the ones poisoning our bodies. 

First, let’s break down the processed foods into different categories. An international panel of food scientists and researchers who have given themselves the title of “NOVA” have created a classification system for the different levels of processed foods. It splits into three categories:

  • Unprocessed to Minimally Processed Foods: Think vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, meat, seafood, nuts, herbs, spices, garlic, eggs, and milk. These should be your basis to maintain a healthy diet.
  • Processed Foods: When the ingredients, sugar, salt, and or oil, are added to foods that are packaged, the phrase used is processed foods. Examples include but are not limited to, simple breads, cheese, tofu, or canned beans or tuna. These foods have been modified, but are not deleterious to your health (in controlled portions). These foods are convenient and helpt to construct a nutritious meal. 
  • Ultra Processed Foods: This is the category we should be cutting back on. This also happens to be the category where 50% of Americans’ calories come from. These foods go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc). They contain many added elements and undergo numerous manipulations. Examples include but are not limited to, soft drinks, chips, chocolate, sweetened breakfast cereals, package soups, hotdogs, etc. 

The harmful effects of ultra-processed foods go deeper than just the physical ingredients put into them. When consumed, they act like little messengers to your brain. Ultra-processed foods are designed to directly target vulnerabilities in the brain. More specifically, in this case, it would be the amygdala. The amygdala is a complex structure of nerves nested in the middle of the brain, adjacent to the hippocampus (associated with memory and information). The amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, but the one we are focusing on is pleasure. The food is designed to target that discreet spot of your brain, producing quick, potent pleasure sensations. Some neuroscientists believe it is as addictive as opioids or nicotine.

This has gotten the attention of more than just the scientists. Ashley Gearhadt is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who studies food addiction, and what she has to say has helped many people realize how serious this is really getting. “We have gotten really good at stripping out and refining and processing sugars and fats into these really potent vehicles and they’re gotten cheaper to make. Then we combine them into totally novel food products that are so much more rewarding than anything our brains ever evolved to handle. That’s why so many of us can’t stop eating them.”

Lab-made chips, hot dogs, enriched bagels, American cheese, and more have been in the American diet since the 1980s, but have since been multiplying on store shelves. A recent study shows that from 2001-2002 to 2017-2018, the calories consumed by these foods have increased from 54% to 57%. What does this say about the American diet? One half of the adults in America suffer from diabetes, or are pre-diabetic. 75% of Americans are overweight and 42% (100,000,000) are obese, according to the standard of Centers for Dieased Control (CDC). In addition, for children ages two to seven, every one in ten is obese, and for teens it is every one in five. 

Our food is literally killing us, burning out our bodies slowly and precisely in a tormenting way–and yet, we still eat. Most of us do not even realize how much damage we do to our bodies in a single meal. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is much like the usage of drugs if you think about it. Many know doing drugs is detrimental to your health, but many still do them. Likewise, people get addicted to ultra-processed foods while knowing the negative effects it has on their bodies. It is an addiction that cannot be broken, and until it is not, Americans are just going to keep suffering from chronic illnesses, and they have no one to blame but themselves. The philosophy that it is the companies’ fault is fallacious. Consumers point fingers at the companies that advertise these products, saying they should not be trying to get consumers to buy their products. However, consumers are the ones that willingly go out and buy the food they see being promoted. The businesses are simply doing their jobs. If consumers are too tempted to go out and buy the foods, that is their fault and they should resist the temptation to create a healthier diet for themselves. They should not put the blame on the companies and take some responsibility for their willing purchase of the products.

However, of course, there are some circumstances where people do not have a choice on what they buy. If your economic status limits your options as far as affordable food goes, it is 100% acceptable to buy ultra-processed foods because they tend to be the cheapest. Only when you are in the economic position to purchase the healthier option is when it is frowned upon if you do not. 

The epidemic of ultra-processed foods is something that is taken too lightly. As a society, we should come together and encourage each other to plan on a healthier diet. After all, you are what you eat.