9th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) Walk down any supermarket aisle and you’ll be bombarded by endless processed food options, from frozen pizzas and ready meals to sweetened yoghurts and cereals. While seen as quick, inexpensive choices, these highly processed convenience foods could seriously harm our health. Mounting evidence links high ultra-processed food consumption to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. It’s time we reassess these chemical-laden products damaging our bodies.
Ultra-processed foods typically contain long lists of additives like emulsifiers, thickeners, artificial flavours and colours – ingredients no home cook would recognize or use. Examples include chips, soda, mass-produced bread, ready-to-eat meals, frozen desserts, sugary cereals and yoghurt. Even some cheeses, commercial baked goods and fare perceived as healthy get classified as ultra-processed due to additives.
These industrial food-like creations make up 60% of calories in the average UK diet and over 70% in the US. But why does this matter for health? It increasingly appears processing itself, regardless of nutrients like fat, sugar and salt, boosts risks of chronic diseases. Every 10% rise in ultra-processed calories correlates to a 15% increase in cancer and 13% rise in heart disease.
Multiple mechanisms likely drive this. Firstly, additives trigger inflammation implicated in diabetes, dementia and cardiovascular disease. Artificial sweeteners also disrupt gut bacteria linked to immunity and metabolic disorders. And sheer calorie density from added fats and sugars promotes obesity.
Additionally, ultra-processing strips away naturally occurring micronutrients vital for health, including antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Refining grains into flour and sugar also increases their blood sugar impact. Losing fibre and protein reduces satiation too, so we overeat empty calories.
Plus, sheer convenience and hyper-palatability of manufactured flavours ensure ultra-processed foods get consumed in excess. Their long shelf-life also normalises unnatural, addictive edible products that encourage gorging. No whole food in nature is engineered for irresistibility like junk food.
Alarmingly, kids eat the most ultra-processed products, wired from infancy to crave stimulating sugar and salt. Developing unhealthy palates at young ages fosters lifelong junk food habits and early onset of obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. Yet packaging tricks like cartoons and toys hook them early.
Even seemingly innocuous ultra-processed items like commercial bread and low-fat yoghurts correlate with higher risks of chronic illnesses. Gluten-free baked goods are also heavily processed. It’s unrealistic for most people to totally avoid ultra-processed fare, but prioritizing fresh, home-cooked meals is ideal. If consuming packaged foods, read labels and avoid long additive lists.
Ideally, national dietary guidelines should acknowledge ultra-processed food risks based on accumulating evidence. Taxation or at least banning additives and restricting marketing could improve public health.
But the fact so many unpronounceable chemicals now comprise our modern food system points to deep flaws. Real food nourishes while processed “edible products” made in factories harm. Vast profits trumpeted by multinationals peddling these substances drown out rising medical costs and human misery from diet-related diseases.
Despite nutritional warnings, ultra-processed food sales continue mushrooming because they’re convenient, appealing, affordable and heavily marketed. But this commercial success increasingly fuels a public health crisis.
While personal responsibility matters, governments cannot continue enabling corporations to profit at the expense of population health. Nor should families need to painstakingly examine endless supermarket shelves to avoid chemical-laden junk.
Protecting citizens, especially children, means overhauling our distorted food environment. When nourishment is tainted by additives and unethical mass production, systemic change becomes necessary.
Thankfully, rising consumer rejection of artificial additives and demand for wholesome alternatives promises brighter horizons. With sustained public education and political will, healthier diets for all can prevail over profit. But the ultra-processed pandemic serves a crucial lesson – when industrial economics corrupt nature’s gifts, our wellbeing suffers. The solution for a lasting legacy must be reconnecting health to what humanity has sustainably consumed for millennia.