• Doug Joachim

Food Porn: Ultra-Processed Foods


Most of the food we eat is processed. Any food product that is washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged is processed. Anything done to food that alters its natural state is considered processed. But, of course, there is another gradation to food processing. It's called 'ultra-processed food.' Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once quipped about pornography, "It's hard to define...but I know it when I see it". Ultra-processing is like the pornography of food.


The NOVA food classification system defines ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as:

They are the ones that use many ingredients including food additives that improve palatability, processed raw materials (hydrogenated fats, modified starches, etc.) and ingredients that are rarely used in home cooking such as soy protein or mechanically separated meat. These foods are mainly of industrial origin and are characterized by a good pleasantness and the fact that they can be stored for a long time

I find that UPFs are extremely tasty, convenient, and tempting but ultimately unfulfilling and unhealthy. These foods make up more than half of all the calories in the U.S. diet. These are some of the most popular foods in America:

  1. Cereals

  2. Sodas & flavored drinks

  3. Frozen pizzas & burritos

  4. Fast food burgers, hot dogs & fries

  5. Potato chips, crackers and Ding Dongs

  6. Cookies, cakes and ice creams

  7. Cold cuts

NOTE: Many vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, keto foods and protein/granola bars fall under the ultra-processed food umbrella.


An increase in ultra-processed food consumption may be associated with overall higher mortality risk. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine published by the American Medical Association looked at the diets of over 44,000 French adults over the age of 45 and suggested: "a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was statistically significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality."


Dr. Kevin Hall of the NIH recently published the first inpatient RCT study (he paid test subjects to live in a hospital for 4 weeks) that found that people who consumed ultra-processed food ate more calories and gained more weight than those who consumed a whole food diet. The study monitored caloric intake and weight gain and offered its 20 healthy adult participants one of two nearly identical menus. Both contained the same number of calories and comparable amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Even the diets’ fiber, sugar, and sodium contents were matched. Nutrient-wise, they were about as similar as two meal plans could get. The only difference was that one group's diet consisted of all UPFs and the other was composed of whole, minimally processed foods. Each cohort spent 2 weeks on their specified diet and then switched to the other diet for two weeks. The participants could eat until their heart's content. The group that was assigned the UPFs, on average, ate 500 more calories per day!


So it seems there is an x-factor in UPFs that may be driving us to eat more. This is unsurprising news. Chemical engineers and food scientists have been trying to get us to eat more since the 70s. Incidentally, this is around the same time our obesity levels began to rise. Food companies want us to drink more soda, eat another bag of Cheetos and regularly crave ice cream. They figured out that when humans eat salt, sugar, and fat simultaneously, it'll drive the reward circuits in our brains crazy. Mouthfeel, texture, smell and tastiness play a large role in potentiating our cravings. Emulsifiers and food additives improve these food experiences and also increase shelf-life. These twin chemical agents (found in most UPFs) may be one of the leading levers causing us to overeat.


Scientists at Nestlé are currently fiddling with the distribution and shape of fat globules to affect their absorption rate and, as it’s known in the industry, their “mouthfeel.” At Cargill, the world’s leading supplier of salt, scientists are altering the physical shape of salt, pulverizing it into a fine powder to hit the taste buds faster and harder, improving what the company calls its “flavor burst.” Sugar is being altered in myriad ways as well. The sweetest component of simple sugar, fructose, has been crystallized into an additive that boosts the allure of foods. Scientists have also created enhancers that amplify the sweetness of sugar to two hundred times its natural strength.

NOTE: Food scientists also discovered that liquid calories are not that filling. On a full stomach, we can always find room for another Coke or a bottle of Gatorade.


We are surrounded by UPFs. It is difficult to navigate our food environments without constantly bumping into these foods. So what should we do? Here are a few tips:


  1. Eat more whole vegetables and fruit.

  2. Cook at home more often.

  3. Stay away from most foods with about 6 or more ingredients.

  4. Watch out for long shelf-life packaged foods (Twinkies will outlive the apocalypse)

  5. Buy fresh bread from a bakery.

  6. Stay away from most fast food.

  7. If it's wrapped or stored in plastic, it is probably a UPF.

  8. Read food labels.

  9. Steer clear from most sodas.

  10. Stay away from most cereals, candy and chips.

  11. Watch out for all microwavable meals.

  12. Limit how many cold cuts, hotdogs and packaged sausages you eat.

Although research suggests that regularly eating UPFs is bad for your health, cutting these out of your diet entirely may be impossible. It’s undeniable that what you eat affects your overall health long-term, and overconsuming UPFs may put you at a higher risk of disease and increased adiposity. However, there’s no need to get down on yourself for eating a frozen burrito or chicken nugget now and again. It is all about balance. The dose makes the poison. Make incremental changes you can live with, cook more, read labels and don't forget to exercise regularly, and you'll be fine.

24 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All