Anyone who knows my blog, will know that I'm close to fanatical about fresh produce and home cooking. Now a new piece of research has come out, which provides some new justification for my stance. You may have heard the debates in the media today about the findings of a Sorbonne study that indicates that over-processed foods increase the risk of cancer.
I have to say that the debate I've heard and the articles I read weren't all that enlightening. I wonder whether this is just too explosive? Is it too dangerous to Big Food, the ultra-processing side of the food industry. If you are The Guardian or the BBC, you will have the suits leaning over your shoulder, making sure that what you say isn't actionable.
I'm not linked to any manufacturer. I don't make a bean from advertising on this site, neither do I work for food manufacturers. Here I'm giving you the undiluted facts, and links to the original research should you wish to read for yourself.
The real story started two years ago, when the UN declared 2016-2025 The Decade of Nutrition. Part of this massive worldwide project which tackles malnutrition in all its guises, from starvation to obesity, was initiating the NOVA project. It is really NOVA and what it says about ultra-processed foods that is most interesting. That paper was published last spring.
As far as the UN are concerned the evidence already exists that over-processed foods are bad for us and the planet. Over-processed foods are formulations from industrial sources - in some cases not really food at all. They contain unhealthy fats, starches, free sugars and salt as well as additives. They typically contain little or no intact food. They are energy dense, and while they may look attractive and seem rather like a cake or a cordial that you might make yourself, analysis shows that they are far higher in calories, typically containing 300-450kcal/100g for 'energy bars' and 400-500kcal/100g for biscuits and chips.
"When formulated as drinks ultra-processed products are often sugared, and are usually depleted of nutrients, or devoid of nutrients."
The UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are so concerned by these ultra-processed foods that they urge governments to make policies right now. They say that the evidence already exists to justify governments to slow, stop and reverse the increases in production and consumption. For example in the USA, an estimated 57.9% of the US food supply of 2009-10 was in ultra-processed foods. No wonder that 65% of Americans are overweight.
It isn't that difficult to cut ultra-processed foods from your diet. NOVA divides food into four categories and provides a rule of thumb for each category. These categories are really different to the old division of protein, fats and carbs that we are used to:
- Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet.
- Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary dishes.
- Limit consumption of processed food.
- Avoid ultra-processed foods.
Don't confuse this with 'clean-eating' that cuts everything except minimally processed foods from the diet. Natural foods like fresh cherries are clearly excellent. Making a cherry crumble is okay too, as long as you use basic (normal) ingredients and don't overload the recipe with sugars or fats. Its okay to purchase a cherry crumble from a reputable shop- check the ingredients list to see how close to home made it actually is. Canned cherries may be okay sometimes - that is simply processed foods - not as good as fresh - but better than nothing. What you should avoid is a processed 'cherry drink' that might actually contain no fresh fruit at all and simply be a concoction of sugars and chemicals. - That's the ultra-processed variety.
Studies, based on the NOVA classification, have been rolling in for some time, and the Paris team's analysis of over 100,000 adults across 5 years, is just one of many. It is one of the few that looks at cancer. It concludes that there is a significant link between consumption of over-processed foods and all cancer, but especially breast cancer. Other contributory risk factors like smoking, age and the contraceptive pill have been, as far as it is possible to do so, statistically accounted for. While this study isn't conclusive (one study never can be), the work is adding weight to the body of evidence that over-processed foods are bad for us. In the UK analysts have investigated the relative price of ultra-processed foods compared to fresh and associations between ultra-processed foods and cardio-vascular disease. Some governments, like Brazil have completely re-configured their food education to take account of the new thinking.
We don't know yet whether over-processed foods are the silver bullet that can bring us back to a healthy trajectory and conquer world obesity. What we do know and what the UN/WHO have been completely clear about its opposition to the 'big food' companies that formulate habit-forming, sometimes quasi-addictive foods, which make it hard to make healthy choices and to avoid over-consumption.
The US product illustrated is Kool-Aid Liquid Drink Mix Cherry and advertises itself as containing '0% juice' Ingredients: Water, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Gum Arabic, Sucralose(sweetener), contains less than 2% of artificial flavor, Acesulfame Potassium(sweetener), Potassium Citrate, Sucrose Acetate Isobutyrate, Red 40, Blue 1, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate(preservatives).