Nutritionists started using the term “ultra-processed foods” about 10 years ago.

It refers to packaged goods such as breakfast cereals, fruit juices, naturally or artificially sweetened drinks, snacks, and fast at-home foods like instant noodles, and frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, or meals.

And so-called “fake meat” products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger also fit the definition: see “Plant-based ‘fake meats’ are ultra-processed foods”, below.

Ultra-processed foods and drinks typically involve several industrial processes, contain additives designed to yield appealing textures and flavors or disguise bad flavors, contain few or no intact whole foods, and are ready to drink, eat, or heat up.

They’re usually made by blending refined plant foods and processed meats with texture agents (e.g., cornstarch, soy, and gums), vegetable oils (often oils high in omega-6 fats), sugars, sodium, MSG under myriad guises (e.g., autolyzed yeast and natural flavors), and synthetic colors, flavors, and preservatives.

Brazil was among first to officially urge avoidance of these foods
Back in 2014, Brazil decided to act on growing evidence of the adverse health impacts of ultra-processed foods when it the nation introduced a new set of official diet guidelines.

Most diet guidelines prioritize foods by type, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats — but Brazil took a very different tack, and that innovation has begun to change public health attitudes worldwide.

Brazil’s pioneering guidelines categorize foods by degree of processing and prioritize them by desirability:

  • Eat freely — Whole or minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, eggs, whole milk, plain yogurt, and nuts/seeds.
  • Limit intake — Lightly processed foods such as canned fruits and vegetables, and cured meat products.
  • Use sparingly — Processed cooking ingredients and aids such as salt, butter, sugar, and oils.
  • Avoid – Ultra-processed foods and drinks such as fruit juices, sweetened drinks, snacks, and fast at-home foods (e.g., instant noodles and frozen pizza or meals).

University of Montreal professor Jean-Claude Moubarac, PhD, helped devise the Brazilian guidelines, and recently said this about ultra-processed foods: “These are not real foods. These are formulations of industrial substances and additives, carefully selected to make a product that is durable, highly appealing and prone to overconsumption.” (CBC 2019)

As Professor Moubarac said, Brazil’s diet guidelines warn people not to trust marketing claims: “Manufacturers have convinced us that what goes on in the kitchen and what goes on in the factory are the same. They are two different things.”

Another of the guide’s creators, Brazilian scientist Carlos Monteiro, PhD, noted that Brazil’s guidelines seek to avoid confusing consumers: “People don’t need to understand the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats.”

American Heart Association joins the critics
Oddly, the American Heart Association remains fixated on unwarranted fear of saturated fats — despite compelling, ever-growing evidence that their attitude is obsolete.

Although the group’s outdated obsession with saturated fats persists, the AHA has begun to focus its fire on ultra-processed foods, and recently issued a press release highlighting their ill health effects.

It’s a welcome new emphasis, since ultra-processed foods now deliver more than half the calories Americans consume, and it’s become clear that — when eaten to such excess — they promote serious health problems (Baraldi LG et al 2018).

Penn State nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton, RN, PhD, who chairs the AHA's Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health, made an important point in the recent press release: “They also tend to pack a lot of calories into each bite. That means you're likely to eat a lot before you feel full.”

In the AHA release, cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., of Tufts University echoed Dr. Moubarac’s comment about the “hyper-palatability” of ultra-processed foods when he noted that they’re designed to possess a taste and “mouthfeel” that will keep people coming back for more.

As the AHA’s release noted, a small 2019 study found people given ultra-processed food ate more and gained more weight, compared with people eating a diet of minimally processed food. Meanwhile, other studies link ultra-processed foods to heightened risks for obesity, high blood pressure, cancer and death from all causes.

Unsurprisingly, most fibers — which are important to gut and overall health — and many trace nutrients get stripped out of the whole foods use to make ultra-processed foods. And while the FDA considers additives such as emulsifiers and stabilizers safe, evidence of potential harm is growing: see Common Food Additives Cause Sickening Gut Changes.

Ultra-processed foods deemed a risk for cardiovascular disease
Last fall, a study presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Scientific Sessions in Philadelphia linked ultra-processed foods to lower scores on key measures of cardiovascular health (Zhang Z et al. 2019).

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the survey responses from 13,446 adults, 20 years of age or older, who completed a 24-hour dietary recall survey and answered questions about their cardiovascular health between 2011 and 2016.

The CDC team compared the participants' self-reported diets to their self-reported cardiovascular health status and calculated that every 5% rise in calories from ultra-processed foods produced a corresponding decline in overall cardiovascular health.

Further, they calculated that — compared with people who got 40% or fewer of their calories from ultra-processed foods — those who got about 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods were half as likely to have “ideal” cardiovascular health, as defined by the guidelines of the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7® health goals.

Life’s Simple 7® are a set of lifestyle steps people can take to reduce key cardiovascular risk factors that can be monitored via standard medical tests: being physically active, eating healthy foods, controlling body weight, and not smoking, as well as maintaining healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

(We should note that the standard measures — total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels — lag behind growing evidence of what constitutes a healthy cholesterol profile: see Cholesterol Picture Gets Clearer.)

Recent studies have shown that people who score in the “optimal” ranges of Life’s Simple 7 enjoy a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. For example, people with ideal scores on at least five of the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 goals are 78% less likely to die from heart-related causes, compared to people with no ideal scores. People who adhere closest to the Simple 7 plan also enjoy reduced risks for other chronic conditions, including cancer, kidney disease, and mood disorders.

“Healthy diets play an important role in maintaining a healthy heart and blood vessels,” said CDC epidemiologist and study co-author Zefeng Zhang, M.D., Ph.D. “Eating ultra-processed foods often displaces healthier foods that are rich in nutrients … in addition, ultra-processed foods are often high in salt, added sugars, saturated fat and other substances associated with increasing the risk of heart disease.”

Meatless “meats” are ultra-processed foods
Despite the halo of health that hovers over them, meatless products such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are prime examples of ultra-processed food.

The makers of these products claim that they have smaller carbon footprints than beef, but it seems unlikely that they’re healthier — especially in light of recent research that has convincingly exonerated the cholesterol and saturated fats in beef of being real cardiovascular health risks: see Experts Critique Saturated-Fat/Cardio-Harm Claims and its links to related articles.

Beyond Burger ingredients as of November 2019:
Pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality) and vegetable glycerin.

Impossible Burger ingredients as of November 2019:
Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2 percent or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, modified food starch, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

The GMO “blood” in Impossible Burgers
The color and flavor of blood in meat comes from a form of iron called heme iron.


And the blood-like color and flavor in the Impossible Burger stems from soy leghemoglobin produced by yeast that've been genetically engineered to produce it.

Despite many anecdotal accounts of harm, no one has produced credible scientific evidence that any GMO food — including the GMO yeast used to make soy leghemoglobin — is unhealthful, or that GMO foods are inherently unsafe or unhealthful.

However, there are two clear concerns about GMO foods: 1) the massive use of glyphosate (Roundup) herbicide on fields containing crops grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds, and 2) an ongoing lack of scientific rigor in the FDA’s approval process for new GMO foods, such as seen in the remarkably lax FDA review process for GMO farmed salmon, which resulted in approval for its sale in 2015.

In fact, the long-standing method of creating new commercial crops — application of radiation or toxins to seeds in the hope of producing genome changes that yield desirable traits — creates vastly more changes in a plant’s genome than the far more selective process of genetic engineering.

The genomic “ripple effects” that occur in genetically engineered food crops are a key point of concern raised by opponents of GMO foods. However, those ripple effects are far broader in the many commercial crops — including some certified-organic ones — that were produced by exposing seeds to radiation or toxins and looking for desirable traits in some of the resulting plants.

It’s more likely that — rather than GMO-produced soy leghemoglobin — the real concern about Impossible Burgers is the fact that they’re ultra-processed foods consisting of highly processed ingredients.

We should note that most of the iron in plants is non-heme iron, which is less well absorbed than the heme iron in red meats. More than 95% of "functional" iron in the human body is heme iron, and the evidence suggests that it is an essential developmental nutrient, while heme deficiency can cause serious diseases such as anemia, porphyrias, and Alzheimer’s disease. (Hooda J et al 2014)

On the other hand, higher intakes of heme iron from red meat are linked to higher risks for certain cancers, and for type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease — for plausible biological reasons. This is why the World Cancer Research Fund International recommends limiting consumption of red meat to 500g (18 oz, or just over 1 lb) per week.


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