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Illustration by Allison & Cam

Until recently I thought I was making wise choices about food. My cupboards are full of products touted as “natural, “healthy” and “organic,” with packaging that promises they are “low in sodium,” contain “no trans fat” and put “fibre first.”

Then I started to hear more about the hidden dangers of ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) and I thought I’d better take a closer look in my pantry and fridge. Turns out I’m not so smart after all.

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The “light” dairy creamer we use has eight ingredients including maltodextrin, disodium phosphate and guar gum – bewildering terms for man-made emulsifiers, preservatives and flavour enhancers. The low-fat blueberry yogurt has 29 grams of sugar – almost as much as a Twinkie (which has 32 grams). And the ancient grains granola I’ve eaten every morning for the past five years is loaded with cane sugar, which has few nutrients and lots of calories.

None of these foods are as heavily processed as, say, potato chips, most breakfast cereals and frozen pizza, but they still do qualify as ultraprocessed, which basically means they are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat, and include ingredients not typically found in home kitchens.

The quick inventory I took of my own kitchen (which didn’t include my snack drawer) made it painfully clear I needed to do more homework on UPFs, why we buy so much of them and how we can break this bad habit, which new research shows is a leading cause of obesity in North America. In the U.S., more than 42 per cent of Americans are considered obese (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In Canada, it’s 27 per cent (Health Canada).

Despite a steady stream of research linking UPFs to health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and depression, Canadians consume roughly 50 per cent of our calories from these foods, says the Heart & Stroke Foundation. That means in grocery stores we are mostly shopping in the middle aisles, where shelves are lined with products that have been significantly changed from their original state with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives or artificial colours.

Given the negative publicity swirling around these aggressively modified foods, it seems preposterous that we continue to consume so much. The reason might be that we can’t help ourselves.

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Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss.Handout

Michael Moss, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (for a series he did on contaminated meat), blames the major food companies. “Big Food has made a science of hooking us on the ‘bliss point’ of sugar, the ‘flavour burst’ of salt and the ‘mouthfeel’ of fat, to use industry parlance,” says Moss.

In his latest book called Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, Moss compares food cravings with compulsions for nicotine and heroin. “People say to me, ‘It’s ridiculous to compare cookies to heroin.’ But these products are designed by some of the top scientists in the world to get the perfect formulation of salt, sugar and fat to get us not just to like these products but to want more and more of them. The power of the products is the speed at which they hit the brain. Tobacco smoke can take 10 seconds to make you want to smoke more. Sugar can excite the brain in less than one second.“

This puts the term “fast food” in a new light.

To be clear, not all processed foods are bad for us. In fact, almost all foods in the grocery store have been processed in some way – even whole foods like fresh fruit and vegetables have been washed, trimmed, shelled, husked or wrapped before they end up in your cart. “Processing” – whether it’s canning, freezing, drying or pasteurizing – refers to all food processing techniques.

What has changed since the end of the Second World War is the extent of processing, says Dr. Vera Tarman, medical director of Renascent, one of Canada’s largest treatment centres for substance abuse, including food addiction. “Food companies wanted to make foods that are sustainable, so they put in lots of sugar and salt to make it last,” she says. However, since the 1980s and 1990s, companies began engineering UPFs at an accelerated pace, marketing them as convenient, inexpensive and good for you because they are fortified with vitamins and can be kept for a long time.

“They have literally flooded the market to the point that some of food’s protective elements have been stripped away and most people haven’t a clue just how much the products they buy have been pumped up,” says Tarman, who wrote the 2019 book Food Junkies: Recovery From Food Addiction. She points to obvious UPF offenders such as Kraft “cheese” slices “which are not called a food any more. It’s a processed cheese product.”

Other items, however, are harder to spot. Most energy bars are “sugar bombs wrapped in protein wrappers.” And in many plant-based meat products “even the real ingredients like soy have been extracted and processed to the point where they are nothing like the real plant food they came from.”

Food addiction, Tarman says, is one of the major, unacknowledged drivers of the obesity and diabetes crises we now face. “Sure, genetics play a role, but we know when people don’t eat this stuff, they don’t get diabetes. Drugs like Ozempic, used to treat diabetes and now used by far too many people as a dietary tool, are just a Band-Aid. It’s expensive and it’s not sustainable. When you go off a drug like this you gain all the pounds back. We need to target the problem at its source – by putting more stringent regulations on food companies.”

Not surprisingly, Big Food and their lobbying allies are marshalling a defence. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, they are pushing back against U.S. government probes into the health effects of heavily processed foods as well as any potential changes to national dietary guidelines, arguing that processing has made food safe, convenient and affordable.

U.K.-based infectious diseases doctor, author and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken has heard these claims before and is prepared for a lengthy fight. “They can say all they want but almost every aspect of UPFs is harmful to the body and the planet,” says van Tulleken, whose new book is Ultra-Processed People: Why We Can’t Stop Eating Food That Isn’t Food. “The destruction of the food structure by processing means that UPFs are, in general, soft – think supermarket bread or a doughnut. UPFs are also dry, which prolongs their shelf life and often means they are calorie-dense. The combination of calorie density and softness means that you can eat far more calories per mouthful than many other foods.”

He adds: “UPFs also have drastically reduced levels of phytochemicals – the thousands of molecules in plants that are essential for dietary health.” Given that, he wants front-of-package warning labels – similar to those already adopted in countries such as Peru, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil – to be put on UPFs.

“When packages are labelled properly, we have evidence that children ask their parents to buy different food just like we told our parents to quit smoking.” (Canada announced new front-of-package labels that warn of products high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat in 2022. Food companies have until Jan. 1, 2026, to start displaying the new labels).

In May, van Tulleken will be a keynote speaker at the International Food Addiction Consensus Conference in London, where scientists, doctors and researchers who are concerned about UPFs will gather to present a consensus statement to submit to the World Health Organization. They want food addiction to be assigned a specific code in the International Classification of Diseases. The code, he says, is the first step in publicly recognizing food addiction – particularly UPF addiction – as a legitimate issue. The designation will also help validate and support treatment for people who struggle with food addiction.

It is important to note that many health care professionals dispute the notion that any food is addictive. They point to the fact that there is no one compound in UPFs that can be singled out as causing an altered state of mind such as with cigarettes and alcohol.

As Dr. David Wiss, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) in Los Angeles, explains, there is a “very clear tension in the eating disorder field” because many doctors are hesitant to lump food into the same category of addictive substances as drugs and alcohol. “Those of us who write papers on addictive eating have really transitioned to using the term ultraprocessed food addiction because it offers more specificity,” says Wiss, founder of Nutrition in Recovery, which specializes in the treatment of eating and substance abuse disorders. “Food addiction is vague, and it implies an apple, almond or banana has addictive properties, which obviously they do not. We want to make it specific to UPFs because then the discussion focuses less on the individual and more on the food environment,” says Wiss.

Clarissa Kennedy, a certified mental-health and addiction clinician based in Parry Sound, Ont., is living proof of how difficult it is to find help. For 17 years, the 44-year-old has tried to control her love/hate relationship with food, which led to anorexia, then bulimia, then laxative use. “I grew up in that era where fat was bad, so to avoid eating those foods I was eating a lot of ultraprocessed stuff that was low in fat, but full of sugar and other additives.”

In 2017, she checked into Renascent where she met Tarman, who assured her food addiction was real. She started eating a diet rich in whole and minimally processed foods. A lightbulb went off. “When I changed the way I eat, it created some healing in my brain, which is where addiction lives. It also allowed me to regulate my relationship with food. I soon realized the only time I experienced loss of control was when I was eating ultraprocessed foods.”

Last November, Kennedy co-founded an online coaching platform, called Sweet Sobriety, to help others like her. She is also a lead organizer of the conference this May in England. “Our goal is only to be able to help those who are struggling with a chemical dependence on these foods, not to remove anyone’s free choice to consume these products,” she says. “For many people, it’s all they can afford to eat.”

“I’m not naive. Ultraprocessed foods will still be on our supermarket shelves, I believe, indefinitely in my lifetime. We just want to allow people informed consent so that they know there is a risk they are taking when they choose these foods for themselves and their families.”

Ultraprocessed food products are everywhere. Here’s how to avoid them

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Illustration by Allison & Cam

UPFs – which include breakfast cereals sweeter than chocolate bars and ready-made meals packed with salt and preservatives – line the shelves of grocery stores, making healthy food shopping a challenge. We asked nutrition experts for tips on how to shop smarter:

  • Stick to the outer aisles of the grocery store, where typically the fruits, vegetables and organic products are located. And shop carefully in the middle aisles – home to breakfast cereals, snacks, carbonated beverages etc.
  • Generally speaking, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. It means there is less processing involved. Always think, “Would I find these ingredients in my kitchen?” Some ingredients you might want to avoid include hydrogenated vegetable oils and tropical oils such as palm oil, sodium nitrite or nitrate, carrageenan, guar gum, sodium benzoate, yeast extract and high-fructose corn syrup. To name a few.
  • Don’t be swayed by hype. UPFs are often marketed as “healthy,” “natural” and “organic.” Those words may describe the original ingredients but they don’t refer to the process of how the food was made.
  • There is a big difference, health-wise, between foods that are minimally processed (a jar of tomato sauce, canned tuna or green beans, frozen fruit and veggies) and ones that are ultraprocessed (frozen lasagna, premade meals and most breads you buy in a grocery store). Lightly processed foods may contain one or two more components such as salt, sugars or oils, but seldom have more than three or four.
  • If you buy ultraprocessed bread always choose whole grain over refined grain. Fresh bakery breads, on the other hand, are rarely ultraprocessed.
  • Be an informed consumer. Question everything. Get to know companies that are committed to cleaner food. This takes time, but the more you shop as an informed consumer, the more innate purchasing real food products will become.

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