Our supermarket shelves are lined with foods pretending to be good for us, when really they’re hiding an array of nasties that are bad for our waistlines and even worse for our lifespans.
The culprit? Ultra-processed foods.
The link between this food group and weight gain was detailed recently, but more damning evidence was released on Thursday that showed the link between ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and even death.
Published in medical journal, The BMJ, the two studies – from France and Spain – concluded people who limited the amount of ultra-processed foods they consumed were considerably better off.
The Spanish study found that four-plus servings of ultra-processed food items per day prompted a 62 per cent increase in the possibility of “all cause mortality”, or death.
Ultra-processed foods typically present as soft drinks, packaged snacks and baked goods, and sugary cereals, but can also masquerade as dehydrated packet soups, ready-made meals and reconstituted meat products.
The sneaky offenders
Deakin University nutrition expert Mark Lawrence co-wrote an editorial on the French study, and told The New Daily many of the products that purport to be good for us actually fall into the ultra-processed category.
Some of them have even attained a perfect score from Australia’s Health Star Rating system, Professor Lawrence said.
He used Coca-Cola’s recently announced Nutriboost milk drink as a prime example.
Marketed as a dairy drink with a great taste and equally great nutritional benefit, the item has scored five stars from the rating system.
However, Professor Lawrence said, the drink fell foul of true nutritional science.
“It’s got five health stars because it’s got all these added levels of calcium, proteins, fibre and vitamin D,” Professor Lawrence said.
While the nutritional stats for the milk Nutriboost aren’t yet available, its juice-based cousin packs 22.5 grams of sugar into one bottle. The daily maximum recommended intake of sugar for an average Australian is 55 grams.
Professor Lawrence told The New Daily this week the Health Star Rating gave undeserving products a “health halo” that meant shoppers thought they were getting a free pass by consuming them.
Other items on his hit list included sugary breakfast cereals – such as Nutri-Grain – and protein shakes.
How to avoid the spin
While Professor Lawrence said some level of processing was necessary for packaged food products, there was a marked difference between the minimal amount necessary, and the industrial processing that contributed to negative health effects.
There are a couple of easy ways to tell if something has been processed to an unhealthy level, he said.
For one, a quick glance should tell you if something has been run through a machine more times than needed. These items usually present an unnatural colour – think brightly coloured snacks, typically coated in a salty, flavoured outing.
If you’re still unsure, pick up the product and flip it over to the ingredients listing. As a rule of thumb, the longer the ingredients list, the more it’s been processed.
Professor Lawrence said to also keep a look out for the number of additives listed – usually identifiable by a bracketed three-digit number.
“The main message is just to avoid ultra-processed foods,” he said.
“In general, the less processed, the healthier.”