From time-to-time, particularly on the fifth Tuesday of the month, I like to review some topics covered earlier in the year or introduce some new topics that have bubbled to the top of the news on processed food. This week I look at the change in how scientific groups are developing new perspectives on studying processed food and obesity. I also look at changes in ingredients by McDonald’s, superfoods & superfads, and food preferences of Millennials.
RCTs for ultra-processed foods? In his book The Bad Food Bible Aaron Carroll warns us that most studies on food are observational and not based on Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) which he proclaims are the gold standard. The general idea is that consumption of processed food is causing America, and to a lesser extent the world, to become overweight and obese. Carroll apparently doesn’t think RCTSs are that important when it comes to processed food, however, as he, like many other food writers, tells us to avoid processed food.
A recent article suggests that RCTs may be on the way to help us to see whether ultra-processed foods affect weight gain, loss or appetite control. The studies will be designed and conducted by the National Institute of Digestive and Kidney Disease as well as the National Institute of Health. It appears that the studies will be carefully controlled. Critical to these studies, however, will be the definitions of ultra-processed food, unprocessed food and whole food. For example, how will canned-diced tomatoes, marinated meats, whole-wheat bread, and whole milk be classified? The definitions in the study may not be the same as what most people think of when using the terms. In addition, will the short-term effect of this study accurately reflect the long-term consequences of such a diet? A recent observational study conducted in Taiwan shows the difficulty in developing consistent definitions for ultra-processed foods.
Huffington Post informs us that everything we know about obesity is wrong. Once again an author informs us about our ignorance on something we thought we knew at least something about. Michael Hobbes introduces us to a new paradigm with respect to our grossly overweight society. He offers two main premises:
a. Obesity is considered to be a “personal failing” with both doctors and society in general blaming fat people for being fat.
b. Weight and health are not equivalent—one is not the equivalent of the other.
I have some sympathy for both premises. Fat shaming is despicable. I refuse to blame any person for being overweight or obese as emphasized in my review of Shrill on this site and in the first chapter of In Defense of Processed Food. BMI is a decent indicator in predicting the overall prevalence of overweight and obese people in a specific population, but it is not useful in categorizing any specific person as explained in Scale. And yet, BMI has become the be-all, end-all measure of health in the North America and many other places around the world. To this point in the article I am with Hobbes.
From these two premises, the author goes on to declare that even though many Americans adopt weight-loss diets, such diets are largely ineffective. Much of the rest of the article is a defense of “higher-weight patients” and blaming medical professionals for being insensitive. So, what is the real problem? Hobbes tells us that “All our biological systems for regulating energy, hunger and satiety get thrown off by eating foods that are high in sugar, low in fiber and injected with additives. And which now shockingly make up 60 percent of the calories we eat.” So, we don’t blame the victims, we blame the food.
Is the concept that processed food causes obesity something that Big Food knows and has been hiding from us? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that avoiding processed food is going to cure the obesity epidemic in the country. Processed food has become a convenient scapegoat for a general problem with overeating. That 60% figure, by the way, is also misleading when you view the specific study (1). In that first chapter of my book I argue that blaming the person or blaming the food will not solve the obesity problem. All processed food is not junk and all junk food is not processed.
McDonald’s will soon be preservative free in some of its menu items. The American cheese in McDonald’s burgers will now be free of sorbic acid. There will be no more potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate or calcium disodium EDTA in its sauce. We can kiss the calcium propionate in our buns goodbye. That makes all of these sandwiches safer and healthier, right? Or is it just another way that Big Food distracts us from what is real to make us feel less guilty when we have a Big Mac? All of these chemicals are preservatives which slow the spoilage of the items. Without the calcium propionate, those buns will still have just as much sodium in them. Actually, there is more sodium in the bun than in a small order of fries. None of these changes will affect the amount of calories in an item. The changes are not about health—just distraction by marketing. A fast-food chain like McDonald‘s does not need to worry about preservatives so much as each outlet just needs to use up these items a little faster or receive more frequent deliveries so that the items won’t spoil.
Superfoods or superfads. Contrary to Michael Pollan’s dictum—“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants” from In Defense of Food—eating “real” food is apparently not enough. We must now consume superfoods—the more the better. Superfoods are designated as such by the author of a book or article or the developer of a new miracle diet. Interestingly enough, superfoods tend go in and out of favor just like superfads. Dr. Oz is one of these promoters of superfoods, but will his selections stand the test of time or merely be a way for merchants of these items to make easy money for the superfood’s time in the spotlight? Most of these superfoods are reasonably harmless in and of themselves, but, when consumed in excess and to the exclusion of a balanced diet, they are more likely to do more harm than good.
Millennial food preferences. A recent USDA report provides insight into Millennial eating patterns. In the report Millennials are defined as the generation born in the years 1981-1996. It seems that there are different interpretations out there as to what the report means. The article that caught my attention about the report states that they “are buying more unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables than processed foods such as pasta and potato chips.” There is merit in that characterization, but it leaves out some important points. Millennials are more interested in “meal solutions” declares another article, highlighting the same USDA report, as they are much less interested in preparing foods at home and cleaning up after a meal than older generations. Thus, Millennials are eating more prepared foods than their elders. Prepared foods are processed foods and many of them are made in a plant rather than coming from one.
And, finally, shout out to Madison, Wisconsin. CNN quoted Scott Rankin, professor and head of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin that “typical microwave heating results in very minimal loss of valuable nutrients in food.” It is good to see some positive news coverage about food science.
Next week: Supermarket USA: Food Power in the Cold War Farms Race
(1) Poti, J.M., M.A. Mendez, S.W. Ng and B.M. Popkin, 2015. Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 101: 1251-1262.
Books described above include: