Where’s the harm in a frozen pizza?

Mar 01, 2019

Strictly speaking, a processed food is any grocery item that has been modified from its original form.  Even steel cut oats, a grain everyone would consider a “healthy” food (low in fat, rich in fiber) is a processed food.

However, its important to note that the “processing” of foods covers much more than mechanical alteration. It includes the full spectrum from foods only mechanically modified (steel cut oats, shredded lettuce) to the nutritional fortification of the most  popular convenience foods. And the longer the list of additives, the more a food moves towards the ultra-processed end of the spectrum.

How risky are these ultra-processed foods? A recent paper from France linked increased consumption of ultra-processed food to an increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer. And prior investigations have associated diets high in ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Why are processed food so harmful?

First, ultra-processed foods often contain additional fats (cheap, refined seed- and vegetable oils which are hydrogenated into unhealthy trans fats) as well as sugar and salt. The extra calories lead to a slow slide into obesity over time, the sugar has been implicated  in pre-diabetes, and the fats (along with the obesity) are a major risk factor for heart disease.

Then we have chemical additives such as sodium nitrite (in processed meat) or titanium dioxide (white food pigment) are cancer risk factors in animal and cellular models. And chemical compounds such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons formed during the high temperature preparation of these foods,  all suspects as cancer promoters.

Here is a group of additive compounds you may never have read about - emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are added to foods such as ice cream, salad dressing, pastas, bread and cookies, to prolong shelf life and keep ingredients from separating.  In mice they disrupt intestinal bacteria (the microbiome) resulting in inflammation and weight gain. If these results are documented in humans, emulsifiers may be part of the explanation for the increases we are seeing in obesity, insulin insensitivity, and diabetes.

Finally, there are the risks from what has been lost in processing - fiber and vitamins. Many vitamins and micronutrients are lost with cooking, and fiber, the nutrient most important to our microbiome, is often purposefully removed.

What can you do to lower your family’s health risks from ultra processed foods?  The only reasonable strategy is avoidance. Minimizing impulse buying and replacing these products with foods you (unfortunately) prepare yourself.

If you think it is time to make a move in that direction (remember, any change will be a health positive, you don’t have to go 100 percent “fresh” all at once), here are three suggestions that might help.

First, shop from a list.  Or if not a list, then some clear ideas of a few main meal menus for the next few days.

Second, avoid food shopping when you are hungry (go soon after breakfast or lunch). This will blunt the tendency to impulse shop for those temptingly packaged and marketed convenience foods.

And finally, change your route through the store. Supermarkets are all built with a similar floor plan - fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish) around the perimeter with the ultra - processed foods lurking in the center aisles.  Walk the perimeter of the store first and try to avoid the aisles unless you have a specific item in mind.

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome and encouraged. Please direct any inquiries or requests for potential subjects for future columns to: adoctorsrx@gmail.com

Revisit previous columns at: https://adoctorsrx.blogspot.com

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