What are ultra-processed foods and why are they addictive?

Research suggests that eating ultra-processed foods is associated not only with the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity but also with the formation of food addiction, characterized by the inability to reject such foods. (1,2)

That said, the list of ultra-processed foods includes not only French fries and chips but also pizza, burgers, sweet cakes, multi-fruit juices, chocolate, and even ice cream. Many people like the taste of this type of food so much that they are willing to take risks for their figure (and their health); this is a typical example of addiction.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed food is a term that extends and complements the well-known “fast food.” This category includes industrially prepared and ready-to-eat foods that can be stored for a long time without special conditions.

To make ultra-processed foods, low-nutrient, high-calorie ingredients are generally used. Some examples are refined sugar, white flour, ultra-pasteurized milk, and processed vegetable fats (margarine, industrial fats).

The consumption of ultra-processed foods is very high, especially in populations living in cities. In many countries, ultra-processed foods represent more than half of the daily caloric intake. (3) These foods are considered tasty, affordable, and cheap. And this is precisely the main problem of its excessive use.

What is the damage?

Ultra-processed foods commonly contain higher fat, simple carbohydrates, and salt than natural foods. At the same time, the vegetable fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for the body’s functioning are absent.

Simple or fast carbohydrates dramatically increase blood sugar (which, when lowered, creates a specific feeling of fatigue, which drives the urge to eat). Trans fats, also present, can act as carcinogens, altering the normal functioning of the metabolism and even the brain.

In turn, many ultra-processed foods are high in salt and additives. This is both for flavor enhancement and shelf life extension. Excess salt and additives are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, WHO recommends avoiding processed meat products entirely due to their carcinogenicity.

Even though most people are aware of the possible harm of ultra-processed foods, they cannot altogether refuse to use them and even occasionally feel wrong about overeating them.

In this context, there is another problem: it is tough for lovers of ultra-processed foods to follow a healthy and stable eating plan.

Ultra-processed food addiction

The secret to the robust flavor of ultra-processed foods is the combination of fast-digesting carbohydrates, fats, salt, thickeners, colors, and flavorings. In some cases, MSG can be used as a flavor enhancer.

Scientists note that eating ultra-processed foods builds tolerance. (2) Gradually, a person feels the need to consume more and more to reach the same stimulus. Also, the taste of “normal” food starts to seem too bland and uninteresting.

In addition, the texture also fulfills its role; It is known that many people like crunchy foods. The crunch can be achieved by frying in oil or using refined carbohydrates (for example, baking). In many cases, natural food is not capable of attaining such characteristics.

List of ultra-processed foods

The complete list of ultra-processed foods includes thousands of foods ranging from candy, white bread, frozen pizzas, instant noodles to cakes, cookies, juices, mayonnaise, and processed cheese.

Ultimately, it’s easier to describe what ultra-processed foods are not about: whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables (including frozen ones), eggs, mushrooms, fresh nuts, real meat, and “homemade” dairy products.

Here is a list of ultra-processed foods that you should avoid:

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Sweet or savory packaged snacks
  • Ice cream
  • Candies (pastries)
  • Margarine and spreads
  • Cookies, cakes, and tarts
  • Cereal bars
  • “Fruit” flavored drinks
  • Sugary cocoa drinks
  • Meat and chicken extracts
  • “Instant” sauces
  • “Healthy” and “slimming” products as substitutes for dishes
  • Pre-made cakes, pasta, and pizzas
  • Poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks.”
  • Sausages
  • Burgers
  • Powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles, and desserts

Why do manufacturers insist on ultra-processed foods?

The increase in ultra-processed foods is partly due to the manufacturer’s desire to sell more. That is why more attractive packaging and advertising are used. As well as the use of various additives designed to make the taste and texture of the product as pleasant as possible for the consumer.

In addition, the search for a low price forces you to save on ingredients. For example, instead of healthy fats, ultra-processed products use refined palm oil. Instead of the sugar itself, fructose syrup and flavorings are used in drinks or fruit juices, which are significantly cheaper and more harmful.

ABSTRACT

Ultra-processed foods are foods made from highly refined ingredients and are easy to eat. Scientific studies show that the consumption of such foods is not only harmful to health but can also lead to food addiction.

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