Pickling Cucumbers at Home

An Objective Line Between Processed and Ultra-Processed

Objectivity is tough. For a case in point, let’s look at how people are processing new data from Kevin Hall and colleagues on ultra-processed foods. It’s important. For the first time, we have good data to say that these foods can cause weight gain. Before we had speculation. Now we have good, experimental evidence. Some people are joyous, others just the opposite.

Lost in the noise is a simple fact. There’s a big objective difference between processed and ultra-processed foods.

The Cheering Section

The reaction we fully expected came from the cheering section. These are folks who’ve been warning for years that ultra-processed foods are taking over global food systems. They’ve known in their hearts that ultra-processed foods are a threat to human health.

Before, they didn’t have definitive data to prove their point. Only correlations. No causality. Now, they have some hard data with which they can bludgeon their nemesis, “big food.”

Early Advocates

Michael Pollan captured the public imagination with his advice to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That was more than a decade ago. His fame peaked with the popularity of that advice. It sold quite a few books for him, most notably, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

Carlos Monteiro offered a more scientific tone, but with a definitive point of view. In nutrition and health, “the issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing,” he wrote. He went on to propose the NOVA system for objectively classifying food into four categories by their degree of processing.

Both Pollan and Monteiro were rejecting nutritionism, albeit with different approaches. Thus, regarding food simply as a mixture of nutrients for the purpose of enhancing health now has many critics. Even so, you will find some people promoting food prescriptions and the idea that “food is medicine.”

Recognizing the Science

In the middle ground, you have people like Francis Collins coming to this subject fresh. As the distinguished director of NIH, his primary commitment is to excellence in biomedical research. In his blog this week, he recognized both the excellence of this research and the importance of the insights it brings:

In the first randomized, controlled study to compare the effects of ultra-processed with unprocessed foods, NIH researchers found healthy adults gained about a pound per week when they were given a daily diet high in ultra-processed foods.

This might not seem new to you. After all, it has been tempting for some time to suggest a connection between the rise of packaged, ultra-processed foods and America’s growing waistlines. But as plausible as it might seem that such foods may encourage overeating, perhaps because of their high salt, sugar, and fat content, correlation is not causation and controlled studies of what people actually eat are tough to do. As a result, definitive evidence directly tying ultra-processed foods to weight gain has been lacking.

Rejecting Science

Leading the luddites, you have folks like James Wong (aka Botany Geek) saying:

“Ultra-processed” is just a culturally-constructed term that is open to massive interpretation, it is entirely possible the study simply found people like eating tasty quesadillas more than boring salad.

Unfortunately he’s flat-out wrong. The researchers designed meals in both arms of their study to be equally pleasing. And guess what? Objective data tell us that subjects in the study found this to be true. Food in each arm won similar ratings for pleasantness and familiarity.

Plus, the NOVA system for identifying the degree of processing in foods is objective and well-studied.

Checking Our Biases

When the subject is nutrition and obesity, everyone has a tough time checking their bias. In the end, though, objectivity will win the day. The Botany Geek and the Food Babe will fade into obscurity.

Click here for the study by Hall et al and here for a skeptical appraisal that predated the latest study.

Pickling Cucumbers at Home, photograph © / Wikimedia Commons

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May 23, 2019

One Response to “An Objective Line Between Processed and Ultra-Processed”

  1. May 23, 2019 at 10:22 am, Mary-Jo said:

    An important point of the study, for me, was that people will happily consume wholesome, unprocessed food when it’s prepared nicely and tastes good. It’s been well documented that taste, access to, cost, convenience, and nutrition are the factors that affect what people are likely to choose to eat. With nutrition always landing last on most lists, I’ve been curious about how nutrition facts labels have been changing the priorities of factors, if at all. In the study, the food was presented to subjects. I’m not sure how this will translate to the general population who will need to shop, prepare, and cook wholesome foods and if the advice gleaned from the study and headlines will hit home to folks. Many celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others who have assistants and cooks who can conveniently and tastefully present the wholesome meals to them, have already shown us how healthful wholesome is, and then they turned their healthy glee into offering processed foods and products for the general consumers (well, those that can afford the goods). Maybe if all people, regardless of their SES, had private chef assistants who could shop for, prepare, cook, and serve delicious meals and snacks from unprocessed foods, the caloric intake of the population will finally decrease and obesity will resolve.😜