A study led by London’s Imperial College and published in JAMA Paediatrics confirmed a long-known fact that the higher the percentage of ultra-processed foods (UPF) consumed in childhood, the greater the risk of weight problems in adulthood.
The study, which collected data on the consumption of highly processed foods by British children over several years, found that more than 40 percent of the intake in grams and more than 60 percent of the calories in a child’s diet came from highly processed foods on average.
In addition, eating habits established during childhood could extend into adulthood, increasing the risk of developing a range of mental and physical health problems later on.
In India, the highly processed foods and sugary beverages market is projected to grow to 17 million by 2025. According to experts, the only way to limit this is to make sure that food labels contain accurate information about salt, sugar, and fat content.
The NOVA classification of food
In order to have a healthy and balanced diet, we need to know what is in our food. Unless we eat directly from a plant or consume milk from a cow, the vast majority of the food we consume is processed through various methods such as pasteurization, heating, canning, drying or the addition of certain preservatives to make it palatable. Ready to eat and has a longer shelf life. However, there is a huge difference between processed and ultra-processed foods.
The ultra-processed food concept was developed by Brazilian nutrition researcher Carlos Monteiro and his team at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (NUPENS) at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.
The team uses the NOVA Classification of Food to categorize food into four types based on the type, scope and purpose of food processing.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Unprocessed foods are the edible parts of flowers, plants, or animals that we eat. This includes fruits, unprocessed seeds, edible mushrooms and algae, eggs, spring and tap water.
Minimally processed foods are whole foods that have been minimally modified to make them suitable for consumption. Packaged almonds, packaged milk, oats, fresh fruit juice, frozen or dried vegetables, wheat flour, corn, oats, etc are examples of minimally processed foods.
This group also includes a combination of one or more ingredients such as dried fruit and nut mix, pasta and couscous made from flours.
Processed industrial ingredients: This group includes culinary ingredients derived from Group 1 or from nature, using methods such as milling, pressing, refining, milling and drying.
These are energetic and unbalanced when consumed in isolation as most of their nutrients would have been lost in the processing step. However, since they are rarely consumed alone and are used in the preparation of whole dishes, they should be assessed in combination with the foods in which they are used.
Examples of processed industrial ingredients are vegetable oils, butter, sugar, salt, starch, etc.
Processed foods: These foods are made when Group 2 ingredients are added to Group 1 foods. These include canned fruits in sugar syrup, freshly baked bread, simple cheeses, canned fish in oil, canned legumes, salted or sugared nuts and seeds, and certain types of processed meats.
This is where the food is processed to extend its shelf life and make it tastier. These products can be nutritious when added in the right amounts, but can be unbalanced if too much salt, sugar, or oil is added to them.
Highly processed foods: The most unhealthy of all highly processed foods are often cheap and convenient, and therefore popular. These are made from ingredients that are mostly used industrially. This includes products such as carbonated soft drinks, mass-produced bread and rolls, cookies, pastries, sweetened breakfast cereals, pre-made pasta and pizza dishes, instant powdered soups and noodles, baby food.
Why are UPFs unhealthy?
When preparing ultra-processed foods, whole foods are usually fractionated into substances and these substances are chemically modified. Industrial techniques such as extraction, molding, milling, etc. are used to process these foods.
These foods usually contain very little or no natural whole foods. They contain substances found in processed foods, such as preservatives, antioxidants, and stabilizers, as well as some substances unique to highly processed products, including those used to mimic or enhance the sensory properties of foods.
These include colorants, flavors and flavor enhancers, sugar-free sweeteners, emulsifiers, anti-caking and anti-glaze agents.
Highly processed foods are linked to a wide variety of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and heart disease, depression, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal disease.
In one study, researchers who tracked the eating habits of 1,043,980 adults for five years found that those who consumed highly processed foods during that period were more likely to develop cancer. This risk was calculated based on the average number of servings per day. For every 10% increase in UPF, there was a corresponding 12% of total cancer risk.
How to make smarter choices
Getting all ready-to-eat packages off the supermarket shelf is convenient, but if you are a conscious shopper and eater you can make sure you are eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for groceries, cooking, and eating:
Cooking at home: If possible, cook at home with fresh, whole ingredients from groups 1 and 2 of the Nova group. It’s healthier, cheaper, and the easiest way to reduce your UPF intake.
Plan ahead: This ensures that you don’t wander aimlessly through a supermarket and give in to the temptation to buy packaged, highly processed foods.
Read nutrition labels: Pay attention to the salt, sugar, and fat content of the foods you eat. Also, make sure you read the nutrition labels so as not to be misled into incorrect health and nutritional information. A pack of wholegrain rusks can be loaded with sugar and contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. Also, be wary of foods that contain a long list of ingredients.
Breastfeeding: Research has shown that infants who are exclusively breastfed up to six months of age have fewer UPFs and sweetened beverages in childhood and adulthood.
Be a Smart Eater: If you plan to eat out, choose healthier dishes made with whole grains and vegetables, and keep the oily starters and desserts to a minimum.
Moderation is the mantra: Eat processed foods when you want, but in moderation. Check the nutritional information of all the foods you eat to make sure you don’t exceed your daily intake limit.