One thing about myself that I don’t tend to discuss at length is my dislike for the “health and nutrition” industry. Not because I believe it’s unimportant or irrelevant, but because it’s absolutely saturated with pseudo-scientific nonsense. My level of tolerance for these things is quite low and that me with a relatively hostile tone and approach to the subject.
One of those things that really gets me fired up are nebulous and poorly defined buzzwords. There a number of well established red flags, like “toxins” and “superfood.” This doesn’t make a claim immediately invalid, there are real toxins in the world, but in the context of health and nutrition its primary purpose is usually to sound sinister or wholesome so you’ll want to buy something. It’s the verbal equivalent of “infomercial” problems. Even if it’s valid, it can and will be co-opted and or perverted to sell you something.
So when I hear a word repeated at length in this context, I become wary of it quickly. “Ultra-processed” has recently found its way onto my “special high intensity term” list. Sure, I see it mentioned a lot in various contexts and studies and I even tend to agree with the general premise, but what does it even mean? Many different foods are processed. Most of the time I’d say that’s not even a bad thing. The question was, is there a specific definition of “ultra-processed” or is it a nebulous marketing term? It will always become the latter to some extent but, spoiler alert, there is a proper definition.
Before I get too much further into the weeds, many of us could substitute the phrase “junk food” for “ultra-processed food” and lose almost nothing in translation. On the same note, this really shouldn’t be news to anybody. I like to think that we all know what sort of things we should or shouldn’t be eating, but like me many of us choose to ignore it for a variety of reason.
The term itself has a somewhat longer history, but most of the studies I looked at were quoting a publication from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) which is part of/connected to the World Health Organization. If they weren’t quoting that publication directly, they were quoting a paper that was. I will provide a link to the document in question at the end for those that are curious.
In the document they suggest four general categories of food:
- Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
- Processed Culinary Ingredients
- Processed Foods
- Ultra-Processed Food and Drink Products
PAHO (2015) P. 2
I won’t really get into the other categories here, though their definitions are actually more specific, if just as broad. There’s an “annex” at the end of the document that lists the specific definition of each one. “Ultra-processed” is defined as follows:
Much of it is still quite vague, in my opinion, but I get the basic idea. The tilapia I made for dinner yesterday probably doesn’t qualify because it was just frozen raw fish. It wasn’t precooked, seasoned, or shaped. Just fish.
The frozen brussel sprouts and bacon I served with it, however, does. It’s a pre-prepared vegetable dish that’s “ready in minutes.” The doesn’t necessarily make it evil, but the point is that it would be healthier if I prepared the dish myself. The one I purchased was engineered to look good and taste good, and sometimes this comes at the expense of health. Lower nutrient values vs properly prepared sprouts, extra levels of sodium to help preserve it, and so on. By itself not really an issue, but if you consider that the fish is the exception rather than the norm, the problem does become a bit clear.
Nearly every dinner I prepare (and lunch I eat) contains or qualifies under this definition of “ultra-processed,” which isn’t just a marketing term. The research on this certainly leans in a specific direction. There should be less of it. Less “junk food,” what a novel concept.
I’m past my posting “deadline” and I could probably write an entirely different post about how, what, or why I should actually address this. I will plan to do so after I’ve given it some thought.
Y’all take care. Hopefully you learned something interesting, if not exactly new.
PAHO. 2015. Ultra-processed food and drink products in Latin America: Trends, impact on obesity, policy implications. Washington, DC: PAHO. https://iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/7699/9789275118641_eng.pdf
Hey, it’s Blaugust time! The goal is to simply promote and stimulate the blogging community by encouraging people of all skill levels and backgrounds to post. The official post can be found here and it’s never too late to start.