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Kathy Kolasa: Processed food isn't all bad

Kolasa, Kathy

Kathy Kolasa

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Q I saw a story in a cooking magazine with the headline, “yes ultra-processed foods could be killing you.” What are ultra-processed foods and is that a true statement? CC, Winterville

A I have said in this column, in talks, when counseling patients and when feeding family and friends, “processed” — as in processed food — isn’t always a bad word.

Food is preserved or processed in many ways to keep it from spoiling, which makes the food safer as well as extends its shelf life thereby reducing waste and making it affordable. Processing adds a convenience factor which actually helps people eat more fruits and vegetables — a good thing if the canned, frozen, or dried produce doesn’t have a lot of fat, sugar or salt added.

The U.S. food industry has a long history of adding nutrients to our food for health reasons. And we have shared our expertise with underdeveloped nations facing single nutrient deficiencies, too.

Early in my career, in the late 1980s, I participated in the development of social marketing campaigns for third-world countries where goiter — a medical condition that is a result of iodine deficiency — was prevalent. In the U.S. in 1924 our health experts found adding iodine to salt was an effective and affordable way to prevent goiter with its symptoms of swelling at the base of the neck, a tight feeling in the throat, coughing, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing and/or breathing.

We have added nutrients to other foods as well when the health experts identify a nutrient that is needed by many people, then find an affordable food that can carry that nutrient to deliver it to all who need it. A good recent U.S. example is the significant drop in the number of devastating neural tube defects in babies because folic acid was added to processed cereals, bread,and grain products that are available and enjoyed by most.

This type of fortification isn’t adding back nutrients that are lost in processing but rather processing a food to be carrier of health. Another example is the voluntary addition of vitamin D to foods like yogurt or cereals, which helps reduce risks for diabetes and some cancers, improve bone health and prevent rickets — a disease of children that is a softening and distortion of the bones resulting in bowlegs.

So, processing isn’t a bad word in my nutrition book. But don’t confuse it with Ultra Processed Foods (UPF). The term UPF was coined about 10 years ago by a Brazilian professor who created a system called NOVA to group foods by their degree of processing.

I am not aware that there is an official definition for UPF in the U.S. But researchers might say they are foods that have long ingredient lists with additives like artificial colors and flavors and added sugars, stabilizers, and preservatives. Some might say they are convenience foods that are ready to eat or ready with little preparation.

I’ve been seeing signs in restaurants and in food ads imploring us to “Eat Real Food” — which is to eat food that is as close as possible to its original state. That’s the opposite of eating UPF. Why? There is a growing belief that there are health benefits of eating unprocessed foods that don’t come from eating UPF.

There was a paper in a journal called Cell Metabolism that got a lot of attention recently. The press release about the study read, “Ultra-Processed Diets May Cause Overeating and Weight Gain.”

The researchers studied 20 adults who were in the hospital and were provided 14 days UPF and 14 days of unprocessed food. For example, an UPF breakfast might be a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, while the unprocessed breakfast is oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

While eating the UPF — a diet with ingredients like hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents and emulsifiers found in industrial food processing — participants ate more food, increasing their calorie intake by about 500 calories per day, leading to weight gain.

I might have discounted this report because the study was only a month long and it involved only 20 people, but it was done by researchers at our prestigious NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Unfortunately, the scientists, so far, don’t know why the participants ate more calories.

There have been other dramatic headlines in the media that are a bit overstated in my way of thinking. The British Medical Journal published a paper linking eating UPF with an increased risk for cancer. The Journal of the American Medical Association-Internal Medicine had a paper stating high consumption of UPF is linked to early death.

But the studies don’t help us know what to do except eat less UPF, which is pretty hard for most of us to do. Having said that, while we are waiting for scientists to learn more, it would be prudent to eat foods as close to their unprocessed state as possible when we can.

We need to be mindful that it takes more time and more money to prepare less-processed foods to eat, so it becomes really important to make good choices among the processed foods we choose.

Hopefully the scientists will figure out if there is a way to reformulate UPF to make the negative effects on weight disappear just like they figured out how to take trans fats out of our diet to help heart health.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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