Log In

Reset Password

If ultra-processed foods were movies, not all would be X-rated

Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, shares a “secret” in a paper he penned for the June 2022 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That nobody knows for sure why the percentage of obese American adults has tripled from 14 to 42% in the last 42 years.

Overeating, the most obvious reason, he reckons, can’t be the cause. The United States has “perhaps the best data in the world” on caloric consumption, yet “these data do not show any increase in energy consumption or availability” during the last 20 years.

And next in line, lack of exercise, is “not supported” by statistics either. While the dean of policy for the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and editor-in-chief of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter acknowledges physical activity levels in the U.S. are still “far below” optimal, there’s “little evidence” they’ve “meaningfully or steadily worsened since 1990.”

He notes, in fact, as jobs have become less physically demanding, studies show leisure-time activities have increased enough to offset that.

While assessing some other potential factors, however, Mozaffarian cites the “industrialization of food” as a clear antecedent to the “unexplained epidemic.” The evolution of which - and I use that term loosely - has led to such a proliferation of ultra-processed foods that nearly 58% of the calories now consumed in the U.S. come from them.

Could this increase have transformed the antecedent into the primary driver in the obesity epidemic? More than a few studies suggest that could be so.

One, for example, published in the July 2019 issue of Cell Metabolism found when subjects were placed on a diet of ultra-processed foods for 14 days and told to eat as little or as much as they desired, they consumed on average 500 calories more than subjects placed on an unprocessed foods diet for the same period of time and given the same dietary directive.

A directive I’ve been giving you that even predates that paper is to minimize your consumption of UPFs. And I’m still convinced this is your best course of action.

But an observation made by Dr. Julie M. Hess in a Medical News Today article about UPFs leads me to believe my long-time advice requires some how-to-do-it help. After all, how can I expect you to minimize your consumption of them when, as Hess explains, the scientific community still hasn’t agreed on what the term exactly means?

It’s a really good point, which makes it a good time to remind you your problem is my problem, too. One we can solve to a great extent by adopting a certain mindset.

One I call channeling your inner Potter Stewart.

He’s the former Supreme Court Justice who gained a good bit of notoriety in 1964 when the court was asked to rule whether or not “The Lovers,” a foreign film shown by manager Nico Jacobellis in an Ohio theater, was pornographic and Jacobellis, therefore, the perpetrator of a crime. Stewart admitted he had no ironclad definition for pornography, but “I know it when I see it.”

And he did not see “The Lovers” as pornography.

Before I explain how I channel my inner Potter Stewart, let’s review the basic differences between minimally processed foods, which are usually viewed as good for you, and ultra-processed foods, which are generally not.

Minimally processed foods undergo freezing, canning, smoking, or pasteurizing as a way to get them to stores while retaining their inherent healthiness. Ultra-processed foods undergo the same processes, but to augment mouthfeel, taste, convenience, and food producers’ profits, some combination of salt, sugars, fats, artificial flavorings and chemical preservatives are also added that tends to make them less than healthy.

Based on only that, the two brands of wraps I eat a few times a week are UPFs. Though neither contains added sugar, both have added fat, salt, and chemical preservatives.

Both, however, are a caloric bargain. A single wrap of either type contains only 60 calories.

Moreover, both either contain 7 or 11 grams of dietary fiber, 4 or 5 grams of protein, and only 4 or 5 grams of net carbs that are whole wheat. So as soon as my gaze goes from the ingredients to the Nutrition Facts, each product passes the Potter Stewart eye test.

And for good reason.

A review of 20 years of data accrued from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination surveys ascertained that UPFs contain only about half the protein, far less fiber, and six times more added sugar than minimally processed foods. So you can see why these I don’t view Tumaro’s Carb Wise Whole Wheat wraps and Ole Extreme Wellness High Fiber Carb Lean wraps as UPFs and don’t hesitate to eat them.

So don’t get frustrated because the scientific community doesn’t provide an ironclad definition of UPFs and don’t dismiss all UPFs as food pornography either.

Just read the Nutrition Facts along with the ingredients list and ask yourself, “How would Potter Stewart ‘see’ this product?”