Experts warn of ultra-processed food risk

5th January 2021 | Eativity editors

The findings of an Australian-first study suggest that many Australians consumers are unwittingly eating their way to chronic poor health by choosing ultra-processed food products that are often wrongly marketed as being healthy.

The study, led by Dr Priscila Machado from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition in Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, has found a strong link between Australians who eat large amounts of ultra-processed food and rates of obesity.

Dr Machado says people whose diets included large amounts of ultra-processed food were 61 percent more likely to be obese and were also more likely to have a higher body mass Index and larger waist circumference than people whose diets include less ultra-processed food. Ultra-processed foods include many so-called “healthy” foods such as flavoured yoghurts, many breakfast cereals, microwaveable frozen meals, packaged breads, margarine and biscuits, as well as sweet and savoury snacks.

Convenience is king these days, but ready meals can be low on veg, lean protein and whole grains.

“People generally acknowledge that junk food is bad for us, but what is less understood is that ultra-processed foods also includes many everyday food products that we eat, believing they are good for us,” Dr Machado says.

“These foods contain cheap ingredients [sugars, oils and starches] with various additives [colours, flavours and emulsifiers] to imitate the taste, smell and appearance of the whole food. The ingredients often go through a series of industrial processes in which very little real food remains, but they become highly palatable, so people overeat them.”

A muesli bar’s first ingredient should be whole grains, and sugar should be further down the list.

A good way to spot these foods is by reading the ingredients list on the labels. If you find a long list of chemical-sounding names, it’s likely to be an ultra-processed food.

“Our findings add to the growing evidence in recent studies that ultra-processed food consumption is associated with obesity and other chronic diseases [diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and depression],” Dr Machado says.

Nutrient-based food labelling such as the Health Star Rating, as well as current dietary guidelines, don’t consider the role of food processing in their recommendations.

“We need policies that focus on the harms of ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines, eliminate ultra-processed foods from schools, public institutions and work canteens, ban marketing to children and impose taxation and warning labels,” Dr Machado says.

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