A Chameleon

Ephemeral Frenemy: The Ultra-Processed Chameleon

The drumbeat is growing louder. “Ultra-processed foods are trashing our health – and the planet,” say four nutrition scientists from Deakin University. It would be hard to find a clearer definition of these products as our enemy. Yet another set of distinguished nutrition scientists argue that ultra-processed alternatives to meat and dairy can offer valuable nutrition. So what gives? Are ultra-processed foods friend, enemy, or frenemy?

It seems that the answer might be all of the above, simply because the qualities of foods that fit this category can shift with our shifting dietary fashions. Not so different from a chameleon blending with the scenery.

Associations with Risk

Once again this week, scientists who see these foods as a threat have new evidence to support their fears. Daniela Neri and colleagues drew upon NHANES data. There they found an association between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of obesity in adolescents. In fact, that risk was 45 percent higher in teens who consumed the most of it. In their conclusion, the authors of this study are clear about the need to cut these foods from the diets of young people:

“Study findings support the growing evidence of cross-sectional and prospective associations between ultra-processed foods and increased adiposity and also with metabolically unhealthy phenotypes of obesity in adolescence. Timely action to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods among adolescents is needed.”

In a press release, Neri offered a plea for policy action on multiple tracks to tame this threat.

Formulation, Reformulation, and Dynamics of Consumption

Much of the rationale for demonizing ultra-processed foods is based on the formulation of these foods. Too much sugar, salt, and fat! Colorants, aromatizers, emulsifiers, and thickeners! Oh my!

So the question becomes can the folks who make these foods reformulate them so they will be better for us? Or must we simply cut the ultra-processed frenemy from our food supply? Deirdre Tobias and Kevin Hall suggest that the first strategy might be better:

“The increased popularity of ready-to-eat or heat UPFs also reflects important changes in food utilization and home economics. Rather than eliminating such foods, we should acknowledge their utility and consider that their reformulation, rather than elimination, might have a more meaningful impact on improving the nutritional quality and health on a population level.”

But what if the problem is not the composition of these products? What if the real problem is more fundamental? The basic concept of their design  is to make them appealing, convenient, and pleasing to consume. For example, Ciarán Forde, Monica Mars, and Kees de Graaf write that the problem with ultra-processed foods might be that people eat them more quickly than unprocessed foods.

Context Matters

The culture of food is evolving in countries like the U.S. that have high obesity rates and lots of the ultra-processed frenemy. These foods are at our fingertips and ready to eat. DoorDash and drive-throughs make it easy to summon. The food goes down quickly and feels good.

No matter how purely we reformulate these foods, the context for consumption still matters. Food everywhere, all the time, easy, and pleasing will work against the goal of healthier diets. Because individual foods don’t matter as much as the overall pattern.

To solve this problem will require a fuller understanding of it. Curiosity is indispensable.

Click here for the study by Neri et al and here for their press release. For the commentary by Tobias and Hall, click here. Finally, for perspective on the confusion this subject engenders even among experts, click here.

A Chameleon, painting by Ustad Mansur / WikiArt

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April 15, 2022