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2023 Food of the Year is not food?

2023 Food of the Year is not food?

My choice for Food of the Year is Ultraprocessed Food. UPFs are getting a lot of bad press lately. Every day brings more handwringing about the dangers of eating these products. They’re blamed for every health problem from cancer to heart disease, depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and kidney disease. I’m surprised they haven’t been linked to dandruff, but it could happen any minute.

The tidal wave of hysteria hides one major problem: there’s no official definition of “ultraprocessed foods”. The media spends a lot of time warning everyone to avoid UPFs, but what exactly should we avoid? According to some definitions, yogurt, whole wheat bread, canned vegetables and rotisserie chicken should be avoided. Seriously?

Let’s Get Real

Aside from raw fruit and vegetables, most of the food we eat is processed in some way. Meat is cooked. Grains are cooked or ground into flour and used for baking. Milk is made into cheese and yogurt. Legumes are cooked.

Humans have been processing (cooking) food for hundreds of thousands of years. Some anthropological evidence suggests early humans may have been using fire almost 2 million years ago. The theory is that cooked (processed) food was easier to digest, freeing more nutrients for absorption, and driving human evolution.

Now we’ve moved into a new phase of human life: the Era of the Ultraprocessed Diet. If most of what you eat is ultraprocessed food, you’re missing all sorts of nutrients from whole food. The Era of the Ultraprocessed Diet could cause human health to devolve.

By the way, UPFs have been in the food supply for awhile. Cheetos were invented in 1948, Oreo cookies in 1914, Tater Tots in 1953, chicken nuggets also in the early 1950s. Carbonated soft drinks were developed during a period spanning the late 1700s to early 1800s. What’s recent is the sheer number of UPF products available.

Identifying UPFs

Some of the UPF lists lump whole wheat bread and yogurt with Froot Loops and artificially sweetened low fat “ice cream”. That’s ridiculous. One definition describes UPFs as foods that have been altered to include fats, starches, sugars and salt. But Pop Tarts and Cheetos have been made entirely from scratch; no altering of anything involved, so I don’t buy that definition. A system called NOVA attempts to make some sense of this problem, sorting foods into 4 groups. The UPFs are described as industrially formulated, made from additives and ingredients derived from food. That’s more useful for describing products like Pop Tarts and Cheetos.

It may simply be that you know an ultraprocessed food when you see one. In my book, a lot of these products aren’t real food at all. The most you can say is that they’re edible. Cheetos, Froot Loops, Mountain Dew, Skittles and the like are in the food supply because companies manufactured them. Hot dogs, potato chips and fried chicken at least have some relationship to real food ingredients.

Speaking of processed meat…

Months ago the negative energy was focused on processed meats. Food consumption data linked them to poor health. The experts told us to avoid them all, everything from hot dogs to bologna to salami and pepperoni. Bacon? Avoid. I’m sure they lumped prosciutto and ham in that list.

Call them “processed” or cured, these foods have been in the human diet for centuries. Before refrigeration, curing was a very effective way to preserve meat for lean times. Somehow humans survived while eating “processed” meat.

Edible but not food

I categorize ultraprocessed foods as completely manufactured, using a variety of chemicals, some of which may originate in actual agricultural products. They may be edible, but I don’t think of them as food. They’re typically devoid of nutrients and loaded with sweeteners and/or fats.

Edible, not food.

In case you need some general guidance, here are some examples:

  • Brightly colored ready-to-eat cereals with sugary-sounding names
  • Soft drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks. Anything flavored, colored, and sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners.
  • Favored/sweetened coffee “creamers”
  • Snack foods like chips and puffs, especially flavored and salted varieties
  • Artificially sweetened or low fat/low carb versions of normal foods. Frozen desserts, bakery items like cookies, candy, cakes, yogurts.
  • Made-up stuff, like Snowballs and Twinkies.

What about fast food? Pizza? They’re certainly processed, but I don’t consider those ultra processed. They have normal ingredients. Is a burger from a restaurant any more processed than one you cook at home? Is a take out pizza worse than a pizza you make from scratch at home? It all depends on ingredient choices, which are under your control.

The Bigger Picture

Patrolling the grocery store with a list of Good and Bad foods sounds mentally exhausting. Go with common sense. Foods should be close to their original form. Oreo Cereal does not fit that description; there’s no original form of Oreo cereal. It’s entirely made up. It may be edible, but I don’t consider it a real food. The less of this stuff you eat, the better.