The food we eat is increasingly processed. What does this mean for our health?
Text Mangai Balasegaram
Cereals. Cookies. Snacks. Sweets. Instant noodles. Potato chips. Carbonated drinks. Packet drinks. Spongy snack cakes. Crunchy savoury bites. Processed foods are increasingly part of the diet in Asia, filling the shelves of convenience stores and 7-Elevens, especially in urban neighbourhoods.
These foods are often cheaper to produce and purchase and are extremely convenient: They are ready-to-eat (or ready-to-heat) and remain “fresh” for days, weeks or months, because they have barely any fresh ingredients.
Frozen TV dinners are loaded with fat, sodium, and empty calories. They’re more convenient, but have contributed to the global obesity epidemic (Image: Shutterstock)
These long-life highly processed products, which are aggressively marketed by transnational companies, are increasingly displacing traditional foods and dietary patterns. For Professor Carlos Monteiro from the University of São Paulo, this is the current “big issue” in public health nutrition which is driving the obesity epidemic and chronic diseases. He believes this trend also undermines culture, meals, family and community life, and threatens local businesses.
His research shows that cutting down on processed foods reduces sugar intake, and thereby obesity and chronic diseases. One study published by BMJ Open found that nearly 60 percent of an American’s daily calories and 90 percent of added sugar intake came from “ultra-processed foods”, but vegetables constituted only one percent of calories.
In Asia, studies also show processed foods are “significant sugar, salt and fat vectors” – and this rises with income level.
It is the “methamphetamine” of ingredients that makes a “high-speed, blunt assault on our brains”.
-Michael Moss, author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”
Food has never been so processed before. Most foods, even in rural Asia, have undergone some processing. Rice, for example, is polished white. Monteiro distinguishes between the extent of processing. Some foods are “minimally processed”, such as pre-washed salad or waxed apples.
At the other end of the spectrum are what he calls “ultra-processed” foods. These are often formulated with refined starches, or cheap extracts of real foods, as well as synthetic additives. While they may look and taste good, they are essentially “fake” foods.
In his bestselling book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss documents how the food industry meticulously designs “crave-able” foods with the right “bliss point” of sugar, fat or salt. Moss argues that sugar is addictive, using the same neurological pathways as narcotics.
It is the “methamphetamine” of ingredients that makes a “high-speed, blunt assault on our brains”. High fructose corn syrup is now ubiquitously used by the food industry; it is cheaper, sweeter and easier to use than regular sugar.
Processing methods are extensive. Foods may be pounded, pulped, ground, powdered or coated. Take boxed dry cereals, for example. The ingredients are first mixed in a “slurry”, a muddy mixture, then forced by extrusion to become flakes, shreds or loops, and are finally sprayed with oil and sugar. Some experts have argued that the extrusion process – which uses high heat and pressure – destroys most nutrients, even the synthetic vitamins. Generally, processing foods diminishes micronutrients.
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“Glocalisation” of fast food
Trade liberalisation has helped economic growth, but is allowing transnational corporations – which are targeting Asia’s large, young and growing populations – to easily penetrate markets. “Regulations” may simply be non-binding WHO recommendations.
Food systems in Asia’s middle-income countries are now changing rapidly, alongside rising sales of ultra-processed foods and fast foods, according to research by Philip Baker, from the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University. Of this, the leading product – and probably the most harmful – were carbonated soft drinks, which had the highest sales in Thailand and the Philippines. To expand sales, transnational manufacturers have a “glocalisation” strategy to adapt to local cultures, Baker’s study on food systems transformation shows.
Preservatives such as aspartame (an artificial sweetener replacing sugar) are used in diet soda drinks. Aspartame has been linked to allergies, premature birth, liver damage and cancer (Image: Shutterstock)
Eat real food
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In his much-quoted mantra, the popular American food writer Michael Pollan calls on consumers to eat “food” – fresh, natural, wholesome food – rather than “edible foodlike substances in the supermarket”. Pollan is dubious of food products making health claims and questions “nutritionism” – viewing food through “good” and “bad” nutrients.
Monteiro echoes such views. In 2014, he led a team that drew up Brazil’s much-lauded dietary guidelines favouring traditional foods. One golden rule: Choose natural and minimally-processed foods and make fresh dishes and home-cooked meals.
Civil society organisations in Brazil had pushed the government to protect the traditional food system. Now, at least 70 percent of food supplied for school meals – given free to children – must be fresh or minimally processed, and at least 30 percent of food must be sourced from local family farmers.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
– Michael Pollan, popular American food writer
Brazil is exceptional in defending local food systems against the transnational giants. But valuing long-established dietary patterns is “becoming more and more popular,” says Monteiro. “[This system] mostly relies on a multitude of small farmers producing fresh or minimally processed foods.” Baker concurs that traditional food systems need to be protected, citing Brazil, and regionally, South Korea, as good examples of this. Some government regulations are needed, such as restricting advertising, improving food labelling, having subsidies on health foods and taxing sugary drinks, he says.
Of concern is mass media food advertising to children, which is reportedly extensive, particularly in India, Malaysia and the Philippines. “The nutrition of children is particularly important as this can and does have life-long consequences,” Baker says.
Brazil includes another thing – pleasure. Eat and prepare meals with others, the guidelines state, for “privileged times of conviviality and pleasure”.
For more stories on food and health, get your copy of Asian Geographic Issue 127, 2017