'Avoid junk food. Avoid fast food. Processed foods are harmful to health.'
This golden mantra of eating healthy has been drilled into all of us. But what about the more sinister category of ingredients that lurks even in foods whose labels boast of being 'fresh', 'healthy', and 'low-fat'?
Enter ultra-processed foods (UPFs), and they're everywhere. "If its food that is being advertised, it's likely ultra-processed," says Dr Arun Gupta, Paediatrician and former member of Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges.
Recent studies are finding strong links between UPFs and a slew of health issues.
FIT speaks to experts to find out how to identify them, and avoid them.
What Exactly Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
To put it simply, processed foods are foods that go through one of these processes:
So, canned foods, pickles, anything made with maida, packaged milk, even home-made yogurt are all processed foods.
Ultra-Processed Foods, on the other hand, are industrially processed foods that use ingredients that go through multiple levels of processing to use extracts of ingredients like flours, fats, starches, and sugars.
UPF also typically contain additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, flavorings and colouring to alter their taste, composition and shelf-life, explains Dr Ashwini Setya, Gastroenterologist, and Senior Consultant with Medanta Institute of Digestive & Hepatobiliary Sciences, New Delhi.
"In the packet if you can't identify any particular real food, then it is most likely ultra-processed."Dr Arun Gupta, former member of PM’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges
Your typical processed foods like ice creams, chips, and soft drinks are all UPFs, but even seemingly healthy foods like your coffee creamers, green teas, sauces, and your 'healthy' instant noodles and oatmeal fall under this category.
They're truly everywhere. According to a study published in the US in 2022, Ultra-processed foods make up nearly 60 percent of what adults consume.
UPFs aren't a new phenomenon, but in recent years, more and more studies have been conducted on the health implications of these ultra-processed foods and the results are not looking too good for us.
Health Risks Linked to UPFs
The reason why UPFs are so harmful for you is because they are made by changing the natural state of the food, often stripping it of all nutrient value while adding harmful chemicals in the mix, says Dr Shikha Sharma, Founder of ONE Health, a nutrition and wellness platform.
"All these chemicals can cause inflammation in the body because your cells don't know how to deal with these 'aliens', and that lead to serious damage to your organs," she adds.
A recent study published in the medical journal Cell Metabolism found that ultra-Processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain.
In the same vein, several recent studies have found links between high intake of UPFs and Non-communicable lifestyle disease (NCDs) like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is another NCD to watch out for warns Dr Lovkesh Anand, Consultant- Medical Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Manipal Hospital, Delhi.
"The rise in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has strong links to diet and exercise patterns, and ultra-processed foods contributes to the risk, especially."Dr Lovkesh Anand
Many of the ingredients listed above are also suspected to be carcinogens.
Another study published in 2021 found that a particular food preservative— tert-butylhydroquinone — popularly used to prolong the shelf life of over 1,250 popular processed foods may harm the immune system.
"Preservatives work by either killing pathogens or not letting them grow, and they could potentially do the same to gut microbiome as well - which is basically made up of bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses," explains Dr Setya.
The bottom-line is they're over all bad news for your health.
Zooming In on India
Its not just a western country problem. An alarming report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), on 22 August, says India's ultra-processed food sector has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.37 percent between 2011 and 2021.
The analysis covered five popular categories of ultra-processed food in India,
Chocolate and sugar confectionery
Ready-made and convenience food
This is alarming when seen in the backdrop of India's already worrying (and growing) burden of NCDs.
According to a recent study conducted by Madras Diabetes Research Centre, that was funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and published in the Lancet, at least 11.4 percent of the Indian population has diabetes, with southern states showing higher prevalence rates.
How Can You Avoid Them?
Is it possible to escape them if they're practically everywhere?
"You have to be ultra careful with ultra processed foods," says Dr Setya.
Being more mindful of everything that you're buying and consuming, and choosing smarter is the way to go.
"All food off the shelf will contain some chemicals and treatment," says Dr Setya, so the best way to avoid their ill effects is to steer clear of them.
Read labels carefully
But if you must reach for them once in a while, turning the packaging around and closely reading what's really in it can go a long way.
According to Dr Gupta, if the ingredient list has more than 5 ingredients its a UPF.
"Also, if it has ingredients that you can't find at home or a local market, it is an ultra-processed food," he adds.
Food labels can also be misleading.
Speaking to FIT for a previous article, Dr Satish Kulkarni, former member of Food safety and Standard authority of India's (FSSAI) scientific committee with an expertise in packaging and labelling explained, there are no guidelines for the claims that manufacturers can make on the front of packs (except certain mandatory information like the veg and non-veg symbols).
Some of the most common false claims that Dr Kulkarni lists are,
Rich in protein, fibre, or other nutrients
Made with 100 percent real ingredients
All these claims can be met with UPFs that contain harmful additives.
A product can, for instance, contain a small amount of 'real ingredients' but after its put through layers of processing and additives, its stripped of any nutritional benefit the original ingredient would have had.