What you NEED to know about processed foods

What you NEED to know about processed foods

What you NEED to know about processed foods

This year I'm undertaking research as part of my Masters in Nutrition at university. I'm investigating a "partnership" that has been formed between our government and the food industry. I expected it to be an interesting but easy-enough topic that would bring together my nutrition knowledge and my legal skills. What I didn't expect was that I would be so shocked by the blatant manipulative behaviour of the processed food industry, and the impact it is having on Australian health.... And I've only just started to scratch the surface.

You would have to be living under a rock not to realise that we are in the grip of an obesity epidemic, and in tandem with this, rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are rising too. At great personal (and financial) cost to those impacted and the people who love them. 

And you know what tracks right along with the explosion in obesity and diet-related diseases?

Ultra-processed packaged foods.

They burst into our supermarkets (and our homes) around the 1980's, and the food industry has made sure they have infiltrated our homes and our eating habits.

And since then, the processed food industry has invested heavily in engineering food-like products that not only taste amazing to us, but also mess with our body's innate ability to recognise when we have had enough to eat. Ever eaten your way through an entire family-sized packet of potato chips or cookies before you even know it? Yep, me too. And that's because highly-resourced teams of in-house scientists have worked hard to create foods that keep us reaching for "just one more". And market research experts have tested and tested these products to make sure our tastebuds are tickled and our hands reach for more.

These energy-dense, micronutrient-bereft foods push us into a state of overnutrition, and when this happens regularly then over time this will lead to obesity, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart attack, stroke and even some types of cancers. 

And it's not just the obvious suspects like sugary soft drinks and deep-fried chips and snack foods we need to be wary of. Products we assume are "healthy choices" have been found to contain levels of salt and sugar in amounts that can pose a risk to our health. Things like pasta sauces, "healthy" fruit yoghurts, wholemeal breads and so much more. 

The most recent Australian Health Survey revealed:

  1. More than a third of calories consumed by Australians in the form of processed and convenience foods and beverages (aka "junk food").
  2. Two thirds of Australians are consuming salt in amounts above the recommended upper level of safe intake. 80% of the salt consumed by Australians has been added to processed foods by the food industry.
  3. More than half of all Australians are consuming “free sugars” from food and beverage processing, in excess of World Health Organisation recommendations. More than 80% of these sugars were consumed in the form of energy-dense, micronutrient-bereft processed foods and beverages.

And at best it's impacting our quality of life. At worst it's killing us.

Poor dietary quality, characterised by overconsumption of "discretionary foods" (that's the official term for junk foods!)  high in energy, saturated fat and added sugars and salt, has been identified globally as the leading driver of increased rates of diet-related diseases including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidaemia and the conditions related to them including heart attack and stroke, and also rates of obesity, which is itself a leading risk factor for these diseases. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has named dietary risks and high body weight as leading risk factors for Australia’s burden of disease. The most recent Australian Health Survey revealed that 63% of Australian adults and 25% of children, are overweight or obese.

So on the one hand we have ordinary Australians who are doing the best they can to feed their families nutritious food, unknowingly purchasing food products they think are healthy for them but which contain unacceptable levels of salt, sugar, refined carbohydrates or saturated fats. And on the other hand we have the processed food industry working hard to oppose public health initiatives such as World Action on Salt and Health.

Research has indicated that reduction in levels of salt and sugar in processed foods will reduce the incidence of diet-related disease like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

So why won't the processed food companies do it?

Because companies have no obligation to see you and I lead healthy happy wonderful lives. Their obligations are to maximise share price and to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate. And our Government has passed NO LAWS to regulate the amounts of sugar, salt or trans fats used by companies.

Sometimes I wish I hadn't peered down this disturbing rabbit hole. But it will be worth it if I can raise awareness of the tactics of Big Food, and help my family, friends and Healthy Happy Wonderful tribe to recognise the manipulation, step back and make healthier choices that will add years to our lives - and life to our years!

There is so much to uncover this year. Each new revelation leads to many more. I will be writing more in the coming months...

But for now I want you to (please!) remember these five things:

1. I want you to acknowledge and really OWN the fact that you were put on this earth to do amazing things, to pursue your dreams and have a wonderful life. You were NOT put here simply to step into the Big Food trap and fatten their bottom lines, and especially not if it is at the expense of your health and longevity!

I want you to remember this every time you see these plastic-covered, highly-engineered, high-profit, micronutrient-bereft, food-like products!

2. Start thinking about your food shopping choices not just in terms of protein, carbs or fat, and start thinking about how processed it is.

In fact, many health experts around the world are advocating for foods to be classified in accordance with how processed they are, in recognition of the adverse impact that ultraprocessed foods have had on rates of obesity and chronic disease. But we don't have to wait for this to happen. We can do it ourselves! All you have to do, is when you are making food choices, or at the supermarket, do a quick mental tally of how many processing, packaging and transportation steps were involved from when the ingredients were alive in a field to now when they are on the shelf. Unfortunately, most processing steps involve refining foods and stripping out their more nutritious components. Eg, brown rice, white flour (even wholemeal flour!)

3. Go LOW-PRO! Choose less-processed wherever you can!

When faced with a highly processed food, ask yourself if you can instead choose a healthier, less-processed alternative. Think: a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts instead of a processed muesli bar or snack bar, some home-made granola instead of a box of breakfast cereal. You get the picture...

4. Don't fall for "healthwashing".

I'm talking about those "health" claims on the front of the pack. Things like "low fat", "good source of B vitamins" etc. Reformulating ultraprocessed foods to make them "healthier" is part of Big Food's agenda to paint themselves as "part of the solution" to a public health crisis they not only helped to create but also profit from handsomely. In fact, I encourage you to carefully scrutinise any food product that comes with a plastic package and a health claim on it.

5. Adopt JERF as your mantra!

JERF stands for "Just Eat Real Food". And by real food I mean veggies, fruits, whole grains, healthy proteins, legumes, nuts and seeds. Yes there can be cake - there must always be cake!!! But support a local baker who uses real ingredients and not a multinational corporation that uses an array of commercial-in-confidence processes and ingredients to maximise corporate profits. Or make it yourself!

Oh, and for bonus points: If you are as horrified by this as I am, add your voice to the many who are starting to become aware and to voice their objections to our Government placing multinational corporate profits over the health and wellbeing of ordinary Australians.

Right now, consumer advocacy group Choice is running a campaign called End the Sugar Coating. They are giving you the opportunity to sign a petition to demand transparent sugar labelling so we as consumers can understand what foods naturally contain sugars, and what food products have had sugar added to them during processing. They are running this campaign after an investigation which showed that clearer labelling could help consumers avoid 26 teaspoons of unnecessary sugar per day and up to 38 kilograms of unnecessary sugar a year! So click here to read their report. And click here to add your voice to the many who are demanding better for themselves and their families!

This is a HUGE topic, and there is a lot more to share. But for now, check out this excellent video by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History to give you a bit more of an overview:


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Swinburn BA, Sacks G, Hall KD, McPherson K, Finegood DT, Moodie ML, et al. The global obesity pandemic: Shaped by global drivers and local environments. Lancet. 2011;378(9793):804-14.

Stuckler, D., & Nestle, M. (2012). Big food, food systems, and global health. PLoS Medicine, 9(6), e1001242.

Weaver, C. M., Dwyer, J., Fulgoni, V. L., King, J. C., Leveille, G. A., MacDonald, R. S., et al. (2014). Processed foods: Contribution to nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99, 1525e1542. 

Moodie R, Stuckler D, Monteiro C, Sheron N, Neal B, Thamarangsi T, et al. Profits and pandemics: Prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra- processed food and drink industries. Lancet. 2013;381(9867):670-9.

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