These regulations will require a new symbol to be displayed on the front of packaged foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars and/or sodium. Manufacturers have until January 1, 2026, to change their labels and comply with the new requirement,” announced the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Federal Minister of Health in June of this year.
This action is simply too little, too late, in our world of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and misleading food labeling. This is not a column designed to discuss how excess dietary salt, sugar and fats can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, or that we need to eat more veggies. We all know this already.
What we may not know is how insidiously UPFs are labeled and marketed—that it is beyond the simple salt, sugar and fat content that is significantly more dangerous to our health, and why.
UPFs as a food class was first proposed in 2009 by Carlos Monteiro, a professor of Nutrition and Public Health at University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, when he developed a food classification system based on the level of processing which foods undergo called NOVA.
Group 1 includes natural, unprocessed or minimally processed foods in which their vitamins and minerals are still intact. Minimal processing could include cleaning, removal of inedible parts (seed shells, for instance), drying, fermenting, or freezing and boiling—all processes that add no new ingredients to the food.
Group 2 is oils, fats, salt, and sugar, an acknowledgment that we sometimes flavour our food with “processed culinary ingredients.” In this context these are products obtained from natural foods through pressing, grinding, pulverizing and refining that are used in minimal quantities for seasoning, without upsetting the primary food’s nutritional balance.
Group 3 is processed foods, those usually made commercially by adding salt, various oils and sugars, and other Group 2 substances to improve taste and palatability, yet are still recognized as versions of the original food. Canned fish and vegetables, fruits in syrup, and fresh bread, are examples of this category. Most Group 3 processed foods have two or three ingredients.
Group 4 is ultra-processed foods, those industrial formulations in which Group 1 natural foods comprise only a small portion, or are completely absent. A quote from the abstract of a United States National Institute of Health study called, “Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them,” is unintentionally (or intentionally) exquisitely graphic in its description of UPFs.
“The manufacture of ultra-processed foods includes the fractioning of whole foods into substances, chemical modifications of these substances, assembly of unmodified and modified food substances, frequent use of cosmetic additives and sophisticated packaging. Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create …. hyper-palatable products liable to displace all other NOVA food groups, notably unprocessed or minimally processed foods. A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents).”
A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains food substances never or rarely used in kitchens
That is scary s**t. I wouldn’t lubricate the chain on my bicycle with some of these ingredients, let alone eat them.
Yet according to Heart and Stroke Canada, 50 percent of Canadians and 58 percent of American’s caloric intake is from ultra-processed foods, defined back in 2010 by Monteiro as, “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.”
Vegans, especially those consuming fast-food meat or dairy substitute options, are not immune. Oat milk, which we use in our household, is a perfect example of a food that is touted as natural and ethical, yet is ultra-processed. The original structure of the oats used in its manufacture has been significantly modified, and multiple additives have been used to improve its nutritional value, consistency and taste.
Current food labeling regulations allow oat milk to be presented as a nutritionally balanced and healthy product, which may indeed have applied to the original ingredients. But as consumers we have no idea of the extent of processing that was involved in producing the product, or how our body might react to such significantly altered foods. Recent food research confirms the importance of this part of the equation.
Our body can react to the same food in different ways, depending on how it is processed. Whole oats, for example, are a low-glycemic carbohydrate, meaning they are slow to stimulate changes in blood sugar production. However, when oats are finely ground, as in bread, their glycemic rating soars, resulting in a quick glucose spike, then dip, causing increased hunger and inflammation. Our body reacts to the structure of food as well as its ingredients.
Dr Sarah Berry, a cardio-metabolic health nutrition expert at King’s College in London, England, has extensively researched food-induced inflammation, and its relationship to UPFs. She suggests that our body reacts to food that has lost its natural structure, as happens in UPF production, as if it were encountering an infection. This reaction triggers our defence mechanisms, and increases inflammation, one known cause of various cancers.
A study of more than 200,000 American men and women and their diet found a link between UPFs and colorectal cancer in men. Those that consumed the highest quintile of ultra-processed foods had a 29 percent higher chance of developing colorectal cancer (the third most diagnosed cancer in North America) than those in the lowest quintile.
A 2018 study of 20,000 Italian adults and their diet by Marialaura Bonaccio, an epidemiologist, took research into nutritionally poor diets versus diets high in ultra-processed foods a step further by comparing groups of each category. The group with poor diets high in sugars and trans or saturated fats and the group who consumed more UPFs both independently increased their risk of an early death. However, a comparison of the two groups to see which caused the greatest risk found that 80 percent of the foods weak in nutrition were also ultra-processed, causing higher white blood cell counts and other inflammation markers.
Bonaccio concluded, “This suggests that increased risk of mortality is not due directly or exclusively to the poor nutritional quality of some products, but rather to the fact that these foods are mostly ultra-processed.”
A multitude of studies over the past decade have confirmed that chronic, low-level inflammation can be a silent, hard-to-detect killer. The link to ultra-processed foods as a cause of chronic inflammation is recent, as is the shift in emphasis from concern over UPFs’ lack of nutrition to their detrimental effect on how our body reacts to the processing itself. Either way, there is little upside of value to consuming these foods.
UPFs are everywhere—in many of the hamburgers, pizza, french fries and ice creams we consume and enjoy from fast-food joints, to the time-saving cakes, processed meats, pre-packaged soups and sauces, and ready-to-eat meals found on mini-mart and grocery shelves.
Food labelling can’t and doesn’t tell the complete story, proving again that the key to our health is often in our own hands. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” is a quote ascribed to Thomas Jefferson. In a world of ultra-processed foods, “The price of good health is eternal vigilance” might be equally apt.