Supermarket and grocer’s shelves are full of ultra-processed foods, products that, in many cases, allow immediate consumption or require short and simple preparation. Pizzas, French fries, and industrial pastries are just some of the examples. Its consumption is becoming so widespread that, in Spain, the percentage of purchases of ultra-processed foods in food purchases almost tripled between 1990 and 2010 (from 11% to 31.7%), according to a study published in Nature in 2017. the definition has been complex to define and it was not until 2009 that this term was coined for the first time, by Carlos Monteiro, a researcher at the University of São Paulo (Brazil). Javier Sanchez Perona(Vitoria, 48 years old), a CSIC researcher at the Fat Institute, delves into the nutritional issues of these products, as well as the consequences of their consumption on society’s health in a book from the CSIC collection what we know of? In an interview by video call and from Seville, he details all the aspects that surround these foods.
Ask. What are ultra-processed foods?
Answer. The definition that is most accepted by the scientific community and by nutritionists is the one included in the NOVA classification of processed foods. Level four defines what an ultra-processed food is, one that has a high degree of industrial processing, in which one cannot recognize the raw material from which the food has been manufactured, which contains high amounts of fat-saturated, sugar, or salt and that contains a very long list of ingredients, among which are not ingredients that one normally has at home. In particular, it has additives that are added to increase the palatability of the food, that is, to improve its aroma, color, presence, or its flavor. A typical example is the addition of monosodium glutamate,
Q. What makes these ultra-processed foods “addictive”?
A. The main thing is the presence of saturated fats, sugar, or salt. These components of food are very pleasant to us. I usually say that this is because we humans have had an evolutionary development in which our brain has developed to make those components of food especially pleasant for us. After all, they are not easy to obtain. You have to think that for our ancestors, getting saturated fats was not easy. Neither sugar nor salt. What happens today is that we find them everywhere, so we become addicted to these nutrients because the brain is prepared to reward us every time we consume them.
Q. Why are they so successful?
A. For many reasons. One of them is because we find them very attractive. But it is that, in addition, for the industry, it is a very important source of business, they are highly promoted. We have the publicity that they permanently put to the processed ones by the eyes. And even on commercial surfaces, they are very within reach. If you go to a supermarket, you find that when you go to buy a fresh product, you usually have to go through the entire supermarket because the fresh produce is usually at the end. On that journey, yes or yes, you have to cross the shelves where the ultra-processed products are. On the way back to go to pay at the checkout, you have to do the same.
“Almost every day we find a new study that links the consumption of ultra-processed foods with a metabolic disease. We also have evidence of neurodegenerative diseases and we are even beginning to have evidence of cancer”
Q. What dangers does its consumption entail?
A. Once the definition of ultra-processed has been accepted, it is much easier to know what it is and to relate its consumption to metabolic diseases. We have more and more evidence. Almost every day we find a new study that links the consumption of ultra-processed foods with a metabolic disease. Within these metabolic diseases, we have obesity all the pathologies that are associated with overweight and obesity, such as diabetes. We also have evidence of neurodegenerative diseases and we are even beginning to have evidence of cancer. The problem is that we can only speak, for the moment, of associations, that is, those people who consume more ultra-processed foods also have a greater probability of having some of these diseases. But, at the moment, we have very little evidence of causal relationships because since the definition is so new, it has not yet had time to develop the studies. We cannot firmly state that if a person consumes ultra-processed foods, yes or yes, they will end up having a metabolic disease. What we can say is that those who consume the most ultra-processed foods,
“The measures that can have a greater impact [to reduce consumption] have to come from public administrations. But above all, more emphasis should be placed on nutrition education.”
P. Carrying out these clinical trials in nutrition has its difficulties.
A.With studies in nutrition we have many complications. Food is not drugs; the doses that we consume, the nutrients, and the effect that they have are low or it is cumulative in the long term, so we either see the very little effect or we need a long time to see the effects. That is one of the problems, but we have more: if we compare a drug when a clinical trial of a drug is done, we usually have the drug, on one side, and the placebo, on the other. In nutrition, placebos can practically not be used because if you give a study group a diet or food, the other group you have to give another diet or another food. And that is going to have an effect. A third problem that we have in ultra-processed foods is an ethical problem.
Q. What can be done to reduce this consumption?
A. Here I always like to reduce the individual responsibility that people have. From my point of view, the influence we have abroad in terms of promotions or advertising is so high that for most people it is very difficult to have enough willpower to say “I am not going to consume ultra-processed foods” because the pressure is continuous. . Therefore, it seems to me that the measures that can have a more significant impact have to come from public administrations. Our health authorities have to establish measures to make it easier for people to consume less ultra-processed foods. It is complicated, advertising should be regulated very well because it is a major source of influence. But there is also the possibility of implementing taxes on these products or also implementing lower taxes on fresh foods, unprocessed foods, or minimally processed foods, so that they are substantially cheaper.
Those are some of the options that exist, but, above all, I think that much more emphasis should be placed on nutrition education. It seems to me that most countries make little effort in nutrition education.
Q. You comment in your book that today’s parents are better informed about nutrition for children, but that the rates of overweight and obesity are much higher. Why is this happening?
A. Because one thing is the information and another thing is how parents can apply that information. Information is often not training. Nutritional education implies the acquisition of purchasing skills, label reading, culinary skills… These types of issues are also important in training and that these skills are put into practice. Those kinds of questions are not being raised. There is only information and information is not enough.
Q. Why, if ultra-processed foods are more expensive to manufacture, do they end up being cheap in the end?
A. The fundamental reason for what I have found is that the components they carry are, normally, either of low quality or they come from countries where the wages are paid to the producers and to the people who are involved in the elaboration of those ingredients are low. A comparative example of this situation is what also happens with textiles.