Half of average diet now ultra-processed food, study claims

Bronwyn Molony reports on the drawbacks of ultra-processed food.

When it comes to food, we all have an opinion on what we should be eating. Should we all go vegan to save the planet? How do we make sure that we are really buying free range? How do we know that what we are eating is the right thing?

It is uncertain whether we are managing the balance any more. The Journal of Public Health Nutrition announced a study recently that showed over 45 per cent of the food we eat is what experts called “ultra-processed” food. In addition, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a recent study from researchers at the Sorbonne in France showing that there can be a link between eating ultra-processed food and cancer.

You may not be alone in thinking: “What on earth is ultra-processed food?” The term would certainly make one stop and think. It turns out ultra-processed is food that besides having all the usual things that are bad for you such as fats, oils and sugars, contains “chemicals that imitate the taste and texture of foods prepared from scratch”.

It does not sound very appetising now that it is written down. But what do those kinds of foods look like in real life?

Attractive, is what they look like, and they include cereals, processed bread, ready meals, sweet and savoury snacks and sauces. Do they sound more familiar now? All of these foods have many chemicals and high salt and sugar content, which are doing us nothing but harm, according to people who know what they are talking about. It is the kind of food that might be labelled “chicken” but would not know what a chicken looked like if it fell over one.

“We’re very much an all or nothing society”

UCC professor, John Cryan, told The Irish Times that our dependence on processed foods was “somewhat alarming” giving what these chemicals have been shown to do to our insides. He also said that these foods are replacing a high-fibre diet, which is essential for gut health.

John O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, also told The Irish Times that we as a nation have got used to these ultra-processed foods: “We’re very much an all or nothing society.” Professor Cryan said our relationship with processed food is like our relationship with alcohol in that regard. It suits the food industry to make these kinds of foods “hyper convenient” – hence the ready meals, pasta sauces and snacks.

Something like Quorn is a perfect example of what is being talked about, something that looks like a healthy option and has not been processed too much, but the opposite is actually true. Quorn is made from mycoprotein, which is a type of fungus. It is fermented in vats and then mixed with glucose and fixed nitrogen. Vitamins and minerals are added and then it is heat-treated. It does not really sound like a plant food or a healthy option any more, does it?  

And it is understandable why we are turning to these foods. As a nation, we are working longer and we have less free time; nobody likes to come in at the end of the day and realise there is more work to do. It is so much easier to just put on a ready meal, or assemble a meal out of several tins or jars.

In fact, Orna Mulcahy wrote a defence, in The Irish Times, of those who do not have the time or the cash to cook from scratch. But her defence was a bit lacking. Yes, it can be hard to make a good vegetable soup from scratch or a tomato sauce. However, her argument that it takes hours of planning to make tasty things from scratch does not hold water now given that nearly everybody has some form of Internet access.

A quick search online on BBC Good Food, on YouTube or anywhere else online will give you a multitude of recipes to try. Admittedly, some of them have trial-and-error problems but usually nothing too awful will come out of these recipes, if you pick from a reputable website.

Buzzfeed’s Tasty channel now has an app and a special hob you can connect to your phone to make sure you are never cooking at the wrong heat. Tasty specialises in making videos of what you are cooking, so you can see all the steps. On the app, you can search for dinners, lunches, a specific ingredient, one-pot meals (to save on the washing up after a long day) or meals under 30 minutes. They have guides on meal prepping: for the unfamiliar, essentially making one meal but enough for several dinners, lunches or even breakfasts.

And if the Internet is not where you want to find recipes, there are loads of cookbook options, Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals or Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals being probably the best well-known series. A search on Amazon or in any good bookshop will show many more.

Suddenly, it does not seem so hard any more. And with the proliferation of supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, fruit and vegetables have never been cheaper or easier to access.

So why is it that we do not make meals from scratch? The ill effects of eating all this ultra-processed food end up on the doorstep of our hospitals. The BMJ study mentioned above found a link between ultra-processed food and obesity, and the study from the Sorbonne found that for every 10 per cent more processed food we eat, there is a 12 per cent rise in the incidence of cancer.

Why is this not raised as a public-health issue more? It must be impacting on our health service, and surely if we can move from treating to preventing, it will only benefit the health service.

These reports are scary, and should scare us all (to a degree). For all the talk of taking expensive multivitamins and eating quinoa and kale and avocados, we could live longer and healthier by not eating a ready meal as often as we do.

This should not go on, and there are several ways to tackle it. Supermarkets could reward shoppers who buy non-processed food, or we could take 30 minutes at the weekend to think about what we are going to eat during the week and plan meals out, or we could resign ourselves to taking 30 or 40 minutes at the end of a hard day to cook a meal when it is the last thing we want to do. Think how much better you will feel, eating real food, rather than food laden with chemicals, sugar and salt.

Really, the main thing we need to take from the studies mentioned is to eat everything in moderation.

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