In today's world, processed foods are ubiquitous. Familiar brands of soda, chips, cookies, and candy line the shelves of our supermarkets and convenience stores. They bring back thoughts of carefree childhood. They taste great and when consumed make you feel like you want just one more bite.
Thankfully, people in general are starting to recognize that these items are not the most nutritious options. But the problem goes beyond just an absence of nutrition, the issue lies in the direct harm to our health that is inherent in these products.
1. Why is it so cheap?
Ever stop to ask yourself? Why is processed food so cheap, especially when compared to healthier natural foods.
At my local supermarket in Manhattan, a 12 oz bottle of Coca-Cola cost $1.29 while a 12 oz cartoon of blueberries costs around 5 dollars. A candy bar and a bag of chips is comparable to the cost of the coke
Surely, these processed foods, that require extensive manufacturing processes, and include multiple unpronounceable ingredients, are much more complex to create and distribute when compared to whole foods, like blueberries, which seemingly just need to be picked and shipped. So why are unhealthy foods so much cheaper?
The answer is that, at least in the U.S, the government heavily subsidizes farmers to produce many of the components of processed food, which makes them incredibly abundant. These include:
Corn - not the sweet corn that is consumed as corn on the cob, but the field corn variety that stretches for millions of acres throughout the great planes of the United States. Inedible by humans in its unprocessed form, it is so abundant and cheap that it is converted into ethanol for gasoline, sweeteners like High Fructose Corn Syrup, and animal feed. (wonderfully documented in the 2007 documentary "King Corn")
Soybeans - mostly converted to oil rather than the more familiar products like tofu and soy sauce
Dairy - so much is produced, and because low fat milk has long been preferred, the industry has needed to figure out what to do with leftover dairy fat. Hence the ubiquitous presence of cheese in countless processed items.
Wheat and rice are also heavily subsidized, but their uses are more straightforward.
Farmers growing fruits and vegetables generally don't have access to this kind of subsidy.
2. Processed food is addictive
You may be familiar with advertising slogans like “betcha’ can’t eat just one” (Lay’s potato chips) and "once you pop you just can’t stop” (Pringles).
These advertising slogans are no lie, in fact processed food companies work hard to ensure this to be the case.
The book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” author Michael Moss documents the elaborate processes used by food companies to carefully engineer their products to ensure that they sell.
Food scientists working for these companies manipulate the textures and colors of foods, and combine ingredients that would never be found in one’s home kitchen. These products are often overloaded with various forms of sugar, salt, and processed oils to overwhelm the palate in order to hide various off putting flavors that are created in the manufacturing process. The amounts of said ingredients that can be stuffed into the products can be obscene. For example, a 12 oz can of coke contains the equivalent of 9.75 teaspoons of sugar.
The result of these processes is that food companies work to make these foods hyperpalatable by exploiting our brain chemistry to work in their favor. Processed foods overwhelm our taste receptors making us think that all food is supposed to taste this way. Thereby we become numb to the more subtle favors present in normal food. This problem is especially pernicious in younger children who are heavily targeted by these companies and may reject healthier home cooked food as a result.
There is now extensive research documenting the addictive properties of sugar through its effect on the dopamine reward center in our brain. This is not unlike the mechanism involved in other addictive behaviors such as drug use. A major difference here is that unlike other addictions, people become hooked early in childhood. This also helps to explain why, after consuming these products, rather than feeling satiated, we crave more of them.
Food manufacturers are certainly aware of this fact. It has been reported that added sugar is found in 74% of processed foods. This is in part because of sugar’s properties as a preservative and it’s effect on food texture, but surely this is also to make these products more palatable.
3. Processed food has detrimental metabolic effects
The specific mechanisms by which these products cause harm is extensive but I will briefly mention what I think is most important.
Stay tuned for future posts where I will describe these mechanisms in more detail
In the meantime I can recommend avoiding packaged processed foods to the extent possible. Shop on the outer edge of the supermarket, avoid the inner isles. Stick with fresh meat, eggs, and produce. Say no to the big food conglomerates and the harmful products they are pushing.
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- Cooper ID, Crofts CAP, DiNicolantonio JJ, Malhotra A, Elliott B, Kyriakidou Y, Brookler KH. Relationships between hyperinsulinaemia, magnesium, vitamin D, thrombosis and COVID-19: rationale for clinical management. Open Heart. 2020 Sep;7(2):e001356. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2020-001356. PMID: 32938758; PMCID: PMC7496570.
- Lim JS, Mietus-Snyder M, Valente A, Schwarz JM, Lustig RH. The role of fructose in the pathogenesis of NAFLD and the metabolic syndrome. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010 May;7(5):251-64. doi: 10.1038/nrgastro.2010.41. Epub 2010 Apr 6. PMID: 20368739.