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How Technology and Food Collide to Destroy Health

Twelve thousand years ago, the first of farmers emerged. The advent of agriculture coincided with the first protein deficiency and micronutrient deficiency diseases historically recorded.

Twelve thousand years ago, the first of farmers emerged. The advent of agriculture coincided with the first protein deficiency and micronutrient deficiency diseases historically recorded.

The reason could be linked to the tendency of grains to contain a lower ratio of nutrients to calories than animal or other plant foods.

Regardless, humans became on average, shorter in stature than their ancestors by a few inches.

While other factors may have influenced this, scientists largely attribute it to a switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more domestic and agricultural-based lifestyle.

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution allowed for provision and mass production of refined flour and white sugar.  After further development of biotechnology, methods, and resources, this progressed and ultimately set the stage for the peak of readily available foods in the form of fast foods and processed products in the United States.

Ultraprocessed products, where the original components of foods used to make the product are largely lost, are a particularly new creation. For example, Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers contain only the smallest amount of strawberries from concentrate. This particular product contains 7 different types of sugar and partially hydrogenated fat, all of which have not been present in the food supply historically.

The main sources for production of our ultraprocessed products: soy, corn, and wheat.  And don’t forget the animals that are fed these commodities.  So instead of a variety and seasonal intake of a large assortment of foods, we have a small assortment of main ingredients that permeate our diets more fully than ever before.

Why would something like this destroy our health?  A diet that is comprised largely of ultraprocessed and processed products promotes obesity and chronic disease in a number of ways.

Ultraprocessed Products are generally:

High Calorie

Large Portion Size

Low Fiber Content

Low Micronutrient Content

Low Phytonutrient Content

Poor Quality Fat

High Glycemic Load

Intensely Flavored (i.e. chemicals flavorings and sodium)

In general, the majority of processing includes removing water in order to increase shelf life, and lower transportation costs. But per bite, the caloric density goes up in foods such as these.  Individuals typically tally their food intake by volume, not calories, so it’s not surprising that weight gain can occur with the intake these kinds of foods.

When researchers gave young children portions of macaroni that were small, medium, or large, they all ate around the same amount.  In older children, however, their intake increased when they were served larger portions.  Portions are largely learned, and as we get used to larger servings, we don’t remember what the correct serving is anymore.

Because ultraprocessed products are largely devoid of important nutrients, eating these sorts of food instead of fruits and vegetables contributes to the lack of protective effects found in these foods against diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

To put things into perspective, 10 oz of strawberries (about 1 ¼ cups) has only 90 calories, but provides 5 grams of fiber, and several vitamins and minerals, dozens of phytochemicals. Contrast that to a 1oz 90 calorie portion of Fruit Gushers that has virtually none of these health –promoting ingredients.

With the healthy fat in ultraprocessed foods largely being stripped and then replaced by saturated and trans fat, this provides for product stability, but those are the very fats that increase the risks of heart disease.  Food processing also increases the glycemic index of foods, which we know hinders weight loss and increases the risk of diabetes and obesity.

Researchers know that a diet based on ultraprocessed foods, like those served in fast food restaurants or on grocery store shelves, leads to excessive weight gain and chronic disease.  Contrast that with a diet that focuses on minimally processed foods which help prevent heart disease and other obesity-related complications.  These diets are rich in cereal fiber, folate, and long chain omega 3 fats, and a low glycemic load.

While food processing is a part of our culture and industry, our methods require alteration to support the health of our population. The problem lies with the pattern of factory-produced foods that are durable, extremely palpable, ready to heat and eat, and aggressively marketed.  These foods are inexpensive, and rich in highly processed ingredients and food additives.  But they are largely devoid of health benefits. Technology must be used appropriately to reduce the burden of obesity-related chronic disease, and be guided by concern for public health, rather than economical gain.

Source:   Ludwig, David.  Technology, Diet, and the Burden of Chronic Disease. JAMA, April 6, 2011 – Vol 305, No. 13 1352-1353.

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