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Ultra-Processed People

ultra-processed food

Ultra-Processed People

The book “Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food” by Chris van Tulleken, an Oxford-trained infectious disease doctor, highlights how ultra-processed foods are engineered to be addictive, and are now linked to the leading causes of early death around the world.

The majority of American adults (60%) are dealing with a chronic disease that is primarily caused by four risk behaviors, and poor nutrition is one of the four according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (1). 

Consuming a healthy diet and avoiding poor nutrition will help to prevent chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers.

The remainder of this article will focus on ultra-processed foods and the role they play in the degeneration of health.


Standard American Diet consists primarily of ultra-processed food

Most Americans are consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD), routinely eating highly processed foods like boxed mac-n-cheese, chicken nuggets, chips, doughnuts, and soda.  This eating pattern is associated with chronic conditions like insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and certain cancers (15) (16).


What is ultra-processed food?

The NOVA food classification system defines ultra-processed food as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (hence “ultra-processed”), many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology” (4).

Energy-dense, nutrient-deficient foods with long ingredient lists like frozen meals, cold cuts, fast food, hot dogs, chips, refined bread, canned soup, chicken nuggets, cereal bars, breakfast cereal, and baked goods are all examples of ultra-processed foods that raise our risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (2) (3).

Ultra-processed (also called highly processed) foods contain additives like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils to add color, taste, and flavor, or to keep the product “shelf-stable” so that it lasts longer (3).  Many of the thousands of FDA-approved additives in ultra-processed foods have negative health consequences (4) (5).


Ultra-processed fast food

Today, it is common for Americans to eat out at restaurants, and most chain restaurants serve ultra-processed foods.

Ingredient lists can be found online for many fast-food restaurants, here’s an example:

A Whataburger from Whataburger contains the following ingredients (6):

Large Bun: Unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, contains 2% or less of each of the following: yeast, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, distilled monoglycerides, calcium peroxide, calcium iodate, datem, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, enzymes, ascorbic acid), calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, ammonium sulfate, sorbic acid, soy flour, monocalcium phosphate, soy lecithin, and calcium propionate (to retard spoilage). May also contain grain vinegar, cornstarch, citric acid, and potassium iodate, and calcium phosphate. Contains: Wheat, Soy. Bun Oil: Soybean oil, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, TBHQ added to protect flavor, beta carotene (color), dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent added. Mustard: Water, vinegar, mustard seed, salt, turmeric, spices, garlic powder, and natural flavors. Beef Patty: USDA inspected 100% ground beef. Special Seasoning: Salt (yellow prussiate of soda added) and pepper. Pickles: Sliced cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, alum, calcium chloride, natural flavoring, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservatives), oleoresin turmeric & yellow 5 (colors), polysorbate 80 (emulsifier). Iceberg Lettuce: U.S. No. 1 crisphead (Iceberg) lettuce. Tomato: U.S. No. 1 tomatoes coated with vegetable-, petroleum-, beeswax-, and/or shellack-based wax or resin. Diced Onions: Diced, U.S. jumbo yellow onions.

The Whataburger “Whataburger” fits the NOVA definition for an ultra-processed food, as you can see above, and research shows that many of these ingredients lead to disease processes in the body – we’ll cover just a few.

  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be found in many highly processed foods today.  This artificial sweetener tastes like table sugar, but due to the structure of HFCS it is quickly absorbed into the body increasing the risk for disordered metabolism and hormone function, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure (7) (8).

  • Diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides (DATEM) is commonly used in bread as a dough conditioner to strengthen the gluten network during baking (9). DATEM, along with other dietary emulsifiers like polysorbate 80, increases intestinal inflammation and reduces beneficial bacteria that increase the risk for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and metabolic syndrome (10).

  • Tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ) is a synthetic preservative that prevents fats from oxidizing to increase the “shelf-life” of the product.  TBHQ is frequently found in highly processed foods like cereals, pasta, dairy, processed meat, and condiments like mayonnaise (11).  Long-term use of TBHQ weakens the immune response to viral infections and can trigger the gradual development of certain cancers, according to research (12) (11).

  • Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in highly processed foods, and research shows that it leads to increased intestinal permeability, low-grade inflammation, dysbiosis, and metabolic dysfunction that leads to weight gain when low doses are consumed over time (13).  Research shows that this emulsifier also increases the risk of Crohn’s disease and kidney and liver toxicity (14).

As we see with this one example of the Whataburger, ultra-processed foods and fast food contain many ingredients that harm our health, and when consumed over time can lead to chronic conditions.

Here’s more information on ultra-processed foods and a few simple steps to begin improving your diet and your health.


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