Ultra-Processed Foods Can Be Good For You?

Written by Cyndi O'Meara

Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.

December 5, 2023

A recent study published has found that ‘not all ultra-processed foods are bad for you.’  The study highlights a correlation between consumables such as sugary artificial sweetened drinks and processed meats and the increased chances of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, while no such correlation between foods higher in fibre including breads, cereals, sweets, desserts, prepared meals, plant-based meats and milks, and savoury snacks was mentioned.

The study begins with this statement.

“It is currently unknown whether ultra-processed foods (UPFs) consumption is associated with a higher incidence of multimorbidity. We examined the relationship of total and subgroup consumption of ultra-processed foods with the risk of multimorbidity defined as the co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual among first cancer at any site, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes”. (1)

I’m a little perplexed by this statement as in their references there are multiple studies showing the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods and disease states.

This study was funded by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) a subsidiary of the World Health Organisation along with other cancer councils around the world.

I’ve read the study and I’ve left a link for you to read it too in the references, it is based on data taken from 7 European countries, 266,666 participants (60% women) between the years 1992 and 2000 (23-year-old data).  For the most part the participants recalled dietary habits in a questionnaire.

Processed foods were categorized in the study.

Supplementary Table S1 Food items included in the nine subgroups of ultra-processed foods (1)
Ultra-processed food subgroups Specific food items
   
1. Ultra-processed breads and cereals  
  Breads
  Biscuits
  Breakfast cereals
2. Sauces, spreads, and condiments  
  Sauces, dressing and gravies – also in powder/dehydrated form/condensed form
  Vegetable spread and products
  Margarine
3. Sweets and desserts  
  Pastries, buns, and cakes
  Ice cream, ice pops and frozen yogurts
  Sweet snacks
  Industrial desserts
  Dairy desserts and drinks (ultra processed versions)
4. Savory snacks  
  Packaged salty snacks
   
5. Plant-based alternatives  
  Dairy substitute products
  Meat alternatives
6. Animal-based products  
  Processed meat (beef, pork, and fish)
  Processed cheese
7. Ready-to-eat/heat mixed dishes  
  Potato products
  Pizza and focaccia (dough)
  Pasta (filled)
  Instant and canned soups
  Ready meals
  Vegetables and legumes in ultra-processed medium
  Rice-based dishes
8. Artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages  
  Soft drinks
  Fruit drinks, iced tea and other sweetened beverages
9. Other ultra-processed foods  
  Artificial sweeteners
  Alcohol-free versions of alcoholic beverages
  Nutrition powders and drinks
 

 

The ultra-processed foods that were found to NOT cause increased incident of multimorbidity are; (from the 1, 3, 5, 7 groups).

  1. Ready meals
  2. Plant-based meat and dairy substitutes
  3. Savoury snacks (eg, chips)
  4. Sweets and Deserts
  5. Bread and Cereal Products

Which means groups 2, 4, 6, 8 and 9 cause an increase in cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  I want you to note that category 2 includes margarine and vegetable spread.  Perhaps butter is better as it is not ultra-processed.  Just a little side note that I’ve been harping on for about for 35 years and is finally recognized as an ultra-processed food.

Foods in the study were categorized by the NOVA food classification proposed in 2009 (2)

  • Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
    Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
  • Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients.

Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, are substances derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying.

  • Group 3 – Processed foods
    Processed foods, such as bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads, are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods.
  • Group 4 – Ultra-processed food and drink products
    Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food. The inclusion of additives, flavour, colours, acidity regulators, gums, binders, antioxidants, stabalisers. The processes include several with no domestic equivalents, such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation, extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying. (2)

The NOVA classification does not take into account nutritional value and or quality of the product.

For instance

Group 1; foods grown using regenerative farming practices as opposed to being grown using industrial agriculture plus nutritional quality are not separated or identified.

Group 2; there are organic cold pressed olive oil and highly refined vegetable oil, the quality and nutritional value in these oils are not identified in the NOVA system yet they are vastly different.

Group 3, once again no clarification of farming practices and the quality of the packaging (glass vs plastic) nor the quality of the ingredients added including salt, sugar and fats.

Common Sense

I’ve been studying nutrition since 1980, it has been a lifelong education, and it continues. I have instilled guidelines which I follow, otherwise, I may fall for studies like this or some slick marketing (you’ve heard the term ‘greenwashing’) and financially driven attitudes to food and nutrition.

Firstly, there is my study of anthropology. What were the foods that allowed us as humans to survive for eons.  The wonderful thing about humans is that we had a diverse landscape of different foods that we could easily survive on, all the way from a tropical environment of many plants and fish and small game, to completely animal-based eating with herding and hunting societies in the far reaches of the planet where plants were not as readily available. And everything in between.

The one thing that was common for all these foods is that nature provided them in the specific area and as humans we learned to prepare them for more nutrition (cooking), palatability (preparation and combinations), and reduced toxicity (preparation and cooking).

Our salts were not refined with added potassium iodate, our meats did not have preservatives other than unrefined salts or merely dehydrated, our plants and animal products were salted and fermented for preservation and there was culture and tradition around the foods we could eat or not eat for our survival and health without chronic disease.

It seems that the world has lost this culture and tradition of honoring food in its rawness and is trying to make out that ultra-processed foods (I don’t care what category) can be just as good for you.

My second guiding principle is the principle of holism (Vitalism) where we must look at the whole picture. The whole picture for me encompasses not only the whole food we eat but how it is grown.

It’s all well and good to look at the nutritional label of the food-like product but until you deep dive into the ingredients you are not actually seeing the whole picture.  Furthermore, how was the food grown? With regenerative principles and soils packed with microbes and nutrients or via sterilized lands where inputs of fertilisers and more chemicals are required to keep the crop safe from pests? You need to be asking yourself, if components of the food in question, i.e. processed meats, were lab made, is it really even food?

Over the last decade I’ve found a third principle, this is only since I purchased my block of land in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland and realized the importance of soil ecology, carbon capture, water retention, organic matter, and the health of the animals and plants that live on the land I look after.  This principle not only looks at the health of humans but the health of the planet. How can I consciously support or give my money to a company that uses food that has been grown on lands dripping in chemicals and sterilized soils?  So, I guess this principle extends the principle of vitalism where I go past the health of the food, now I want to encompass the health of our planet.  Therefore, any food with dubious additives is not on my list of foods to purchase.

Not only are there ingredients that are listed on ultra-processed foods, but hidden behind those ingredients are more chemicals from farming processes and even more chemicals for preservation such as natureseal, irradiation of food and Apeel, I have written on these three topics in the past.  I’ve linked these for your further reading.

To see a study like this one that says that some ultra-processed foods are good for human health with regards to cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes but does not encompass other health issues we see today like asthma, allergies, autism, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, anxiety, depression, inflammation, seizures and so much more.  I understand that the scope of studies cannot do this especially when it comes to the variety of humanity that exist on this planet, not only genetics, but the quality of the microbiome and other traits and tendencies of humanity and where they live on the planet.  Other things to consider is sunshine, sleep, movement, connection, love, laughter, purpose and peace.

To see a study like this one that does not look at the ingredients of the food and see what it is doing to the health of the planet, using additives, created via synthetic biology (genetically modified microbes and the ethics behind this practice), genetically modified foods sprayed with glyphosate and or dicamba, other foods sprayed with atrazine, paraquat, chlorpyrifos that not only causes physical disability and mental health issues but destruction of soils and environments. A study that does not look at bread and cereals made with a multitude of dubious ingredients as opposed to breads made with the 4 essential ingredients (sourdough starter, organic wheat, unrefined salt, quality fat) and cereals made with quality ingredients mixed and packed like muesli or granola as opposed to the breakfast cereals in packaging leaching azo dyes from cardboard colours into the refined, extruded, fortified, flavoured cereal, leaves me speechless.

The headlines for this study are infuriating and anyone with a bit of common sense should dismiss the fact that 5 categories of ultra-processed foods are good for you and will stop three maladies; heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer of the 100’s that exist in present day humans.

If not me who, if not now when?

If we do not make a stand on the food choices we make, then who will, and if we don’t do it now, then when will we do it?

Remember the purpose of ultra-processed food is;

“The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create branded, convenient (durable, ready to consume), attractive (hyper-palatable) and highly profitable (low-cost ingredients) food products designed to displace all other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are usually packaged attractively and marketed intensively”. (2) 

It has nothing to do with health and everything to do with profit, so to see a study promoting half of the categories of ultra-processed foods seems like a slap in the face to common sense.

No matter what category you pick from this study they are all ultra-processed and they are all part of category 4 in the NOVA system which means you cannot make them in your kitchen and you cannot purchase most of the ingredients in your local grocery store. Again, if ‘food’ is made with ingredients you cannot source yourself from a grocery store or farmers market – you have to ask, is it even food?

Changing Habits is here to help, we have programs, protocols, basic food items like seaweed salt, rapadura sugar, ancient flours, dates not contaminated with wheat doused in glyphosate, spices, spice combinations, pepper, cold pressed inca inchi oil high in omega 3’s, whole chocolate without flavors and emulsifiers, recipe books, information books, documentaries and so much more to help you on your journey to health.

Changing Habits is your stepping stone to move out of the ultra-processed food aisles and into the foods that will create health for you, your family and the planet.  It is a step-by-step process but just think in one year if you make one change a week you will have made 52 changes which in turn will increase health outcomes.  Just taking half the ultra-processed foods out of your diet and eating the other half will not create health and energy like food based on our ancestral past.  Seasonal real foods, prepared by you to feed your family to heal this nation.

My book Lab to Table, goes through what the food processing industry has done to our foods and what it does to your health and what is your alternative.  Step by step, habit by habit it can be done.

Cyndi

 

 

References

(1)Consumption of ultra-processed foods and risk of multimorbidity of cancer and cardiometabolic diseases: a multinational cohort study https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanepe/article/PIIS2666-7762(23)00190-4/fulltext#appsec1

(2) https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova

Other references you may like to read

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-ultraprocessed-foods-affect-your-health/

https://www.thesun.co.uk/health/24731485/ultra-processeed-foods-cancer-healthy-diabetes/

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/nov/13/some-ultra-processed-foods-are-good-for-your-health-who-backed-study-finds

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1 Comment

  1. Louisa Crosslé

    Well, we don’t have to believe them :). They reference the WHO! That is instant dismissal of credibility. thank you for an interesting article, as usual.

    Reply

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