They are everywhere! It is hard not to come across the vast selection of processed foods lining supermarkets shelves, convenience stores, gas stations and probably even your office kitchenette l. Not to mention the fast-food chains spawning through our suburban streets, inviting us for a quick and easy meal. However, even in the relative safety of our homes, we are peppered with advertising luring us to part with our money for a snack we just happen to crave. It's a "silent" pandemic inflicted onto humanity – by humanity. But why?
The food industry is huge; after all, everyone must eat and drink. But what if manufacturers could produce food that tickled our taste buds more than plain old vegetables? Moreover, what if this food, if you can call it that, could be produced cheaply and be addictive at the same time? Enter processed foods designed to have an optimal bliss point. That's food technologist speak for an optimal balance of sweetness, saltiness and fattiness, which, unfortunately, evolution has primed us to love. But we are way past the stone age, and there is nothing optimal about these modern foods. Well, that's not entirely true because they are very optimal for the profits of multinational food companies that shamelessly exploit this loophole provided by evolution.
Designed to satisfy – but whom?
Our brains are hardwired to seek out foods with a high calorific value or those that were once hard to come by. In essence, we are talking about fat, salt as well as sugar and other refined carbohydrates. It's a survival instinct designed to prepare us for the lean times, give us the energy to run from predators and other dangers or ensure our health when the selection of foods was very limited.
Fat conveniently and deliciously coats our taste buds to proclaim its virtues; sugar does the same, but its irresistible sweetness is directly wired into our brain to release dopamine and opioids we all associate with addictions. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/ Salt, on the other hand, used to be a valuable commodity because, for our herbivorous ancestors, it was hard to come by. Since we evolved from ocean-dwelling creatures, our extracellular fluids still need a perfect balance of sodium for our body to function. And this has to come from the foods we eat and drink. No wonder we have developed hormones that, together with our sympathetic nervous system, immediately respond to low sodium and instigate a hunger and thirst response with a particular craving for salt. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2491403/
But worst of all, many of our modern foods combine these attributes into an easy to eat package. Fats and sugars in cakes and other sweet treats, salt and carbohydrates in chips and other snacks and we have even managed to combine salt and sugar in buzz foods such as salty caramel. The natural foods our ancestors came across did not share these characteristics. Fruits are high in sugar but have no fat, whereas meat is high in fat but has no carbohydrates. Vegetables and plants provided us with mainly fibre and some carbohydrates until the advent of ubiquitous agricultural staples such as wheat and potatoes. These provided humans with a now limitless supply of easy carbohydrates, which, in essence, are just another type of sugar. Evolution could never foresee these densely packed calorie combinations, so no wonder our brains are going haywire.
Of course, the problem we modern humans face is that we don't need these hardwired survival responses anymore. Not only do our sedentary lifestyles reduce our calorie expenditure, but food is plentiful and, in most parts, non-seasonal. So, no need to wait for summer to indulge in sweet fruits and no need to hunt down an animal to prop up our fat reserves for winter. Nevertheless, this hasn't stopped the food industry from exploiting our ancient responses, an aspect of evolution that is now our weakness. The barrage of advertising and fanciful, attractive packaging of these foods is a testament to their importance in the manufacturer's profits.
But it is not only the individual that is being manipulated by the food industry. There have been countless stories of how general advice on healthy eating may have been skewed in favour of profit by clever lobbying by industry to governments. So, the best advice is to do your own research.
Processed foods explained
So, what are processed foods? Processed is a term that signals an action taken to highly modify an original product. Processed foods are thus created bearing little resemblance to any natural types of food. Usually, they are a snack or convenience food, but these days, even so-called healthy foods can be very much processed. Take a cauliflower, for example. Healthy on its own but bought as a convenient ready meal in the form of cauliflower cheese, you probably find a disproportionate amount of fat, salt and sugar to make it tastier and easily preserved.
There is also a distinction between processed and so-called highly or ultra-processed foods. The processing of foods includes simple steps such as curing, smoking, and canning, whereas ultra-processing adds cheap oils, sugar, preservatives, salt, artificial sweeteners and flavours.
In summary, processed and ultra-processed foods share the following characteristics in any combination:
- High in calories
- High amounts of sugar, vegetable oils and salt
- Added preservatives and flavours
- Poor in micronutrients such as vitamins and mineral
- Have a long shelf life
- Aggressive advertising (when was the last time broccoli featured in an advertisement?)
Our health at stake
It is hardly a secret that the explosion of processed foods coincided with a massive rise in obesity and associated chronic diseases in the modern world. For example, Type 2 diabetes is directly associated with the excessive consumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates. It is on track to becoming the major health epidemic of the 21st century. And the cost to the economy, not to mention the suffering, is staggering. Each year about 7 million people develop Type 2 diabetes, and 80% of those will eventually succumb to cardiovascular disease. It is also estimated that a person with diabetes has five times the medical expenses of someone without it. Sadly, it will cut up to 14 years of the average lifespan. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068646/ And all that for a chronic condition that is entirely preventable and even reversible.
Processed foods also contain synthetic antioxidants such as are butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and propylgallate. These are great at preserving foods, but these toxins are entirely foreign to our body and need to be dealt with by the liver.
Another ingredient used often in cured and smoked meats is sodium nitrite/nitrate which is added to improve the colour and prevent bacterial spoilage. This addition also improves the flavour but unfortunately leads to the production of nitrosamines in the food which are known carcinogens.
A recent article published by the British Journal of Nutrition also found a strong correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and oxidative DNA damage in otherwise healthy adolescents. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32513316/
Limiting the damage
Let's face it. We all love to indulge at times, and even for the health-conscious, it is challenging to completely avoid processed foods. Limiting the dietary share of processed and ultra-processed foods is the obvious way forward to manage the spiralling epidemic of obesity and its associated chronic diseases. But there is also a way to reduce some of the damage processed foods inflict.
For example, the added synthetic antioxidants need to be eliminated by the liver and glutathione is directly involved in the breakdown of these products. Similarly, nitrosamines are inactivated in the liver by reaction with glutathione. Likewise, oxidative stress can be minimized by cellular glutathione - our body's "Master Antioxidant".
Unfortunately, our body's capacity to produce an adequate supply of glutathione declines with age and illness. Added to this, the more processed foods we consume, the higher the demand for glutathione. Without sufficient glutathione, our cells will suffer oxidative stress, which will lead to cell and tissue damage and consequent illness.
Glyteine®, to date, is the only supplement that has been clinically proven to increase cellular glutathione rapidly and safely. Present in Continual-G® supplements, it can help restores cellular glutathione to a more healthy level. This will assist in detoxification and the elimination of oxidative stress brought about by consuming processed foods.
Find out more about the scientific breakthrough of Glyteine® for cellular glutathione support in our blog on "All antioxidant supplements are not equally effective."