Highly processed foods: recipe for disease?

PRHE’s Dr. Nicholas Chartres wrote the following response to media coverage on ultra-processed foods.

What if I said that if you are eating a diet of high or ultra-processed food from packets, filled with chemicals, you have a significantly higher risk of dying younger from heart disease or cancer?

Pretty scary, huh?

Well, in the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia ultra-processed foods now account for ~50% or more of calories consumed. That means half of our diet consists of empty, chemical-filled calories.

The industrialized food industry has told us that by “fortifying” (adding essential nutrients like Vitamin A, iron, etc, so they appear to be filling dietary deficiencies you may have), “functionalizing” (adding things like probiotics to orange juice so they appear to have additional health benefits) and “reformulating” (reducing salt or fat so they appear to lower disease risk) ultra-processed foods, it makes them healthier for us. There are myriad problems with this approach, including that it does not take into account how the other ingredients added to these foods, including flavorings, colorings and emulsifiers, are primarily synthetic.

Research has revealed that chronic inflammation may be a key contributor to why ultra-processed foods increase our disease risk. The industrial-sounding products and chemicals (flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers) both within these foods and the packets they are served in (which often contain PFAS chemicals, which are long-lasting carcinogens found in various fast-food packets) may be recognized by the body as foreign, like a bacteria or virus. It has been suggested that this triggers our body into fight mode against these harmful agents, causing an inflammatory response.

So why is this so bad?

Scientists have established 10 Key Characteristics that reflect the properties of cancer-causing hazardous agents; these include biological processes like altering DNA repair, inducing oxidative stress, or chronic inflammation. These Key Characteristics have been established as pathways of cancer from exposures to more than 70 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the world’s leading agency for classifying carcinogens. 

When we continually eat ultra-processed foods, we are likely to be in a state of chronic inflammation and therefore at greater risk of disease. 

The article then points to the best ways we can prevent this disease state from happening:

  1. Reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods you eat to as close to zero as possible and,
  2. Eat a plant-based diet.

Simple enough, right?

Well, doing these two things can be extremely difficult and puts the onus on the individual rather than addressing the root problem.  Our food environment is flooded with these foods that have been engineered to be tasty and addictive; their marketing and advertising are ubiquitous and persuasive, and they are very cheap, often due to government subsidies, making them more affordable for very low-income communities, who are the highest consumers of these products. 

So, what is the solution?

A large part has to be government action and regulation, just like how we regulated tobacco (banning advertising, increasing sales taxes, and mandating health warnings on packaging). Then maybe we will be able to have a food system that provides calories from real food, with fewer harmful chemicals, and less disease risk.