Friends, the idea that the market will correct itself is a nice one. And probably true over long enough of a timeline. Here’s the problem: that timeline may extend beyond your own and the next generation’s too. Which brings us to the first decrease in human lifespan in decades. So, let’s talk about one of the major contributors to this trend.
I want to preface this by saying that I am food-forward. I sometimes joke that Bang is Toronto’s only pro-bread gym. I would not dream of stigmatizing handmade baked goods or the odd cocktail. Food is love! But, I find myself drawing the line at a specific category. Something that offers you zero benefit—from your own microbiome to our entire ecosystem. I know what you’re thinking: it’s Nicki Minaj. But I’m actually talking about Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs).
The term “processed” doesn’t mean that much. All food is processed in some way, even if it’s simply refrigerating or cooking it. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are different. They are defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes.”
Imagine somebody’s grandma baking cookies from scratch. The secret ingredient is love! For UPFs, just completely invert the process and priorities. The secret ingredient is shareholder value! The end-user (you) can get double-stuffed.
When you have something organized to maximize the amount of money you get out of a fixed unit of work, you arrive at Adam Smith’s definition of productivity. Productivity is cool but it needs a few systems-level tweaks. Like saying that you can’t literally kill people. Which hasn’t stopped companies like Nestlé or Coca-Cola from you know, like, literally killing people.
Take sports drinks. Branding experts and designers will first determine what colours are going to be on-trend during the next season. Then they’ll decide what flavour is associated with the colour. Which is how you get names like “Permafrost Jackhammer.” Only then do companies hand the design over to food engineers. “Ah… Just like Mama used to engineer!”
Ultra-processing creates products that are convenient (shelf-stable, ready-to-consume); attractive (hyper-palatable); branded (you can recognize an Oreo from 10 feet away); and, of course, highly-profitable. That last piece should raise a fair amount of eyebrow. It means that cost of manufacture takes priority over even marginal quality gains. And that’s how you wind up with hyper-palatable cardboard.
Of course, this stuff isn’t actually made with cardboard. It’s somehow worse. It combines engineered flavours, high fat, and high carbohydrates to create nutritionally bankrupt calorie bombs. These attributes hijack millions of years worth of evolutionary programming to make us nom nom nom. UPFs are a likely explanation for why obesity is increasing even though sugar consumption itself is trending downward.
Cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type II diabetes, and some types of cancer are all correlated with UPF consumption. This stuff may be tasty but it doesn’t really act like something that nourishes you. And that’s before we even get into the huge environmental impact of the packaging and transport of ingredients, let alone the agricultural cycle behind all of this stuff.
UPFs are the most liberal interpretation of foods legally possible. So, as much as I’d like to be laid-back about them, I also believe that they’re generally bullshit—and that decreasing consumption will improve your quality of life. There’s really no ambiguity here. So, here are a few ways to explore reducing or eliminating UPFs:
- Be pragmatic. We all love tasty, convenient foods. So, rather than making monk-like discipline your strategy, simply reduce or eliminate UPFs from your home environment.
- Be creative. Take a standard snack or meal and ask yourself how you could level things up just a little. Especially when doing so improves enjoyment. For example, going from a Snickers to an equivalent amount of dark chocolate and nuts.
- Be observant. Sometimes there are easy wins around you. Like doubling up on veg—or reducing caloric hop-ons—in a grab-and-go lunch. You just have to keep an eye out for options.
- Be undramatic. If someone offers you a Cheeze Whatsit, maybe just enjoy it. Ultimately, if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning, you will sidestep many of the potential health risks associated with UPFs. As ever, nutrition is more than about adding or taking away just one thing.
- Be empathetic. The single-use plastics and supply chains behind some foods have an impact.
- Be a bit hungry. Obviously, be safe about this. But if it’s down to a crappy airport or convenience store snack versus nothing, sometimes, nothing wins. Humans don’t need a continuous supply of nutrients; that’s why we store fat in the first place.
- Be occasionally inconvenienced. Prepare more ingredients. Walk a little farther. Wait a little longer. These small, value-based level-ups have a cumulative weight.
A quick note: This post was inspired by Ryan Andrews and his book, Swole Planet. He was instrumental in the original Precision Nutrition coaching certification and is an important voice for mindful eating and mindful food production.