Highly processed foods can be cheaper for companies. But might you end up paying for it in the end? Two observational studies recently published in BMJ adds to growing concerns that highly processed foods may be the opposite of extremely good for you. One such study found that men in the US who regularly consumed more highly processed foods were more likely to develop colon cancer. The other study revealed that those in Italy who had maintained diets high in highly processed foods were more likely to have died earlier. That’s not great news, considering what a study published in an October 2021 issue The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had found: from 2001-2002 to 2017-2018 consumption of highly processed foods and beverages increased from 53.5 percent of calories in the American diet to 57 percent.
Highly processed foods are to processed foods what plastic surgery is to glamor. The prefix “ultra” can be positive when it comes to ultras, ultrasexy or Ultraman. But “over-processed” is the worst of the four NOVA food and beverage classifications.
Group 1 of the NOVA classification is “unprocessed or minimally processed foods”. These are what you’re used to seeing in the produce section of a grocery store, assuming no one is pressing, grinding or salting your apples. This category includes foods and beverages that have been cut, chilled, frozen, pasteurized, powdered, vacuum-packed or dried, as long as nothing such as sugar, honey or oil has been added.
The second NOVA group is the “processed cooking ingredients” category, which are essentially Group 1 foods that have been put through a bit of stress, so to speak. They may have gone through some pressing, refining, grinding, milling, spray drying or similar processes that do not actually change the nutritional content of the product. This category includes things like butter, sugar, salt, vinegar, molasses, vegetable oils, lard, and butter. You don’t tend to eat Group 2 foods without Group 1 foods at the same time. For example, you don’t usually say, “I’m really feeding like a stick of butter right now. Does anyone have a stick of butter?’
Group 3 consists of ‘processed foods’, where sugar, oil, salt or other substances from group 2 are added to foods from group 1. In most cases, foods and drinks from this group tend to have no more than two to three components. Here the purpose of the processing is to make the food more durable or to enhance some of their sensory aspects, i.e. how the food tastes, smells or appears rather than the food’s ability to taste and smell, which would be creepy. Examples include canned or bottled vegetables, salted or candied nuts, smoked meats, fruit soaked in syrup, and cheese. Yes, cheese, great cheese.
And finally there is Group 4, the “highly processed foods” category, which basically consists of “industrial formulations” with usually five or more ingredients. These are the foods where you look at the ingredient list and might have to say things like, “what? Mononuclear? Mono the lead singer of U2?’ You may see ingredients like casein, lactose, whey, gluten, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar, or various types of syrup. Such ingredients significantly change the properties of the food or drink, such as changing its appearance, color, taste, smell or texture. Often, the percentage of original, natural food present is very small, even when the packaging says “all natural”, which you might like to cover yourself in dirt for a first date and call yourself a “natural wonder” . These include what are called Frankenfoods. In this case, Franken is a reference to Frankenstein, the fictional scientist who created a monster, and not former Minnesota Senator Al Franken.
With so much added stuff, is it any wonder that highly processed foods might not be good for your health? These two new studies published in BMJ they were observational cohort studies, meaning that researchers observed groups of people over time and compared what happened to those who had consumed different amounts of highly processed foods. So take each of these studies with a grain of salt, which if they were foods would put them in the NOVA 3 group. Such studies are rather limited in that they can only show possible associations or correlations and cannot prove cause-and-effect.
The US-based study analyzed what had happened in three large cohorts: 46,341 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study conducted from 1986 to 2014, 67,425 women from the Nurses’ Health Study conducted from 1986 to 2014 and 92,482 women from the Nurses’ Health Study II conducted from 1991 to 2015. None of the participants had cancer when they started the study. Participants filled out food consumption questionnaires every four years to get a sense of what they ate and how often. Ultimately, 1294 men and 1922 women ended up having documented cases of colon cancer during the 24 to 28 years they were followed. of monitoring. The 20% of men who ate the most highly processed foods were 29% more likely to develop colon cancer than the 20% who ate the least. The study found no such association among women.
The Italy-based study followed 22,895 people, 48% of whom were men, and determined how their responses to dietary questionnaires correlated with mortality rates over time. During the study period, which totaled 272,960 person-years of follow-up, 2205 people ended up dying. Those with the highest intake of ultra-processed foods were 19% more likely to die overall and 27% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the 25% of people who had the least ultra-processed foods.
Again, these two studies did not prove that highly processed foods caused colon cancer or early death. There could be other explanations. For example, someone who eats a lot of highly processed foods may be more likely to have other not-so-healthy habits. However, you have to wonder what putting so-called Frankenfoods in your mouth can do to your body. Besides, you never know what has changed in the process and how your body might end up processing such changes.