What An (Ultra) Process!
An eye-popping new online database tells you if your supermarket staple has been chemically altered
Are you a fan of the “Bela lightly smoked sardines in organic lemon flavored extra virgin olive oil”, available at WholeFoods and Amazon, etc? Then you’re in luck. It is what it says on the tin and is not processed to the nth degree.
But if your fridge is full of “Banzai frozen spicy crab roll” instead, then you might want to start looking for an alternative pronto. It scores 92 out of 100 on the ultra-processed scale compared to other, similar products and this is one of the times when a higher number isn’t better.
Ditto the “Freshness guaranteed mini cinnamon rolls”, which, despite its name, scores 77. And the “Paqui cool salsa verde chips” went all the way to 100.
Where am I getting all this data from? truefood, a database of 50,000 products sold at Walmart, Target, and Wholefoods with detailed information of nutrients and ingredients and shows the levels of ultra-processedness of the product.
Using the nutrient facts and machine learning, each product is assigned a single score from 0 (minimally or unprocessed) and 100 (highly ultra-processed) and this number represents the percentile position of the food processing score within the category.
What does that mean?
Ok, so remember the Bela lightly smoked sardines? It has a score of 3. Which means it is at the 3rd percentile among all smoked sardines, meaning if we have 100 different sardines on a shelf then 97 of them are more processed than Bela. I think I got that right…. Or you can check it out here yourself.
truefood is the brainchild of a team of scientists from Network Science Institute at Boston’s Northeastern University who have been researching on food ultra-processing as part of a larger project called Foodome, which is part of another, even larger project “dedicated to developing a systematic approach to analyzing the lifestyle factors that contribute to coronary heart disease”.
“It’s really food and environment, not simply genetics, that are the major determinants of our health,” Giulia Menichetti, senior research scientist and a member of the team, told Northeastern.
And this is a good thing, she added, because…
“unlike our genetic makeup, diet is something over which people have control. But to do so requires knowing what’s actually in our food.”
Hence the database as well as three really interesting and interlinked studies on this topic. Menichetti is a co-author of all the papers.
Some of the findings in the studies are beyond the level of my little grey cells but no less fascinating. For example, she co-wrote this paper in Nature Food which found that natural nutrients exhibit common patterns and she captured it in a single equation.
Two other papers still under peer review look at prevalence of processed food in grocery stores in the U.S. and machine learning prediction of food processing which introduce an algorithm that they say accurately predicts the degree of processing for any food.
What do they find?
“73% of the US food supply is ultra-processed, and on average ultra-processed foods are 52% cheaper than minimally-processed alternatives.”
I may not have a clue about machine learning, but I do know that this is a worryingly high number and that ultra-processed foods are associated with poor health outcomes.
For example, the first systematic review of available observational studies that assessed the association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status found possible links with overweight and obesity and metabolic syndrome (a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity), among others.
Here’s more on ultra-processed foods from Harvard Medical School.
While the papers focused on the U.S. I think the findings are relevant to all of us. And the team behind truefood, who said ultra-processing means food has been chemically altered, said they wanted consumers to be more aware of what they’re eating.
This is because “the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) only tracks and reports so many nutritional components, and the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) only requires companies to report around 12 nutrients.”
I’d be keen to hear from any nutritionists on what they think of the website and their conclusions. You know where to find me.
Show me the money
Perhaps the reason why there are so many ultra-processed foods on our grocery store shelves, in our cupboards and in our stomachs can be explained by this little chart below?
This is from the USDA, showing public and private expenditures for agricultural and food research and development (R&D) between 1970-2019 from private and public coffers.
It also shows government funding for food and agri research has been going down while corporations’ have jumped quite dramatically over the past two decades. Thanks to Marion Nestle who first reported this on her blog.
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Two Important but Upsetting Reads
I tried not to lead with yet another depressing story but these are major reports so I need to share. They paint a really grim picture of the food security situation in the near and medium-term future. And remember, the war in Ukraine - and Russia’s actions - are only part of the story.
Two weeks ago, I spoke of how the problem with the world currently is not food availability but access and affordability, and how a lot of this is actually based on political decisions and action (or inaction).
But I also pointed out that for people who are affected, the situation is dire. And this joint outlook by the two UN food agencies - the FAO and the WFP - paints a terrible picture of the countries and the people in the throes of a hunger crisis. Here are a few takeaways -
An unprecedented number - 49 million people in 46 countries - could be “at risk of falling into famine or famine-like conditions, unless they receive immediate life and livelihoods-saving assistance”.
This includes 50 000 people already in Catastrophe.
Aid agencies use an IPC scale of 1 to 5 to determine levels of food insecurity and Phase 5 - red alert - is catastrophe or famine. In this scenario, “Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies. Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.” Read more here.
Countries at risk of reaching this level? Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Sri Lanka, West African coastal countries (Benin, Cabo Verde and Guinea), Ukraine and Zimbabwe have been added in the list of hotspot countries compared to the January 2022 edition of this report.
Other hunger hotspots are Angola, Lebanon, Madagascar and Mozambique.
There’s also a second brief from the UN Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance which said billions of people “face the great cost-of-living crisis in a generation”.
It said the war is compounding a fragile global economy that is still reeling from two years of fighting COVID-19 which means people’s ability to deal with more stress was already very low.
“60% of workers have lower real incomes than before the pandemic; 60% of the poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it… and $4.3 trillion is needed per year - more money than ever before - to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
I think the graphics below from the report speak louder than I can.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.