Ultra-processed foods are everywhere and represent more than 50% of food products sold in supermarkets!
If the term is widely used today in the vocabulary of health and nutrition sections of magazines, do we really know what it actually means?
How to define and identify them and are they harmless or dangerous for health?
What is an ultra-processed product or food (AUT)?
Foods can be classified and defined by their degree of transformation with 3 main levels:
We will speak of “unprocessed” foods for all raw products such as meat, raw cereals or vegetables. These are products for which there is neither added external substance nor mechanical process which modifies their original structure.
The second category contains “processed” foods .
These are raw products in the first category to which ingredients such as fat or salt have been added.
Bread - for example - therefore falls into this category because it mixes cereals in the form of flour and several ingredients (water, salt, yeast) with mechanical kneading and cooking.
Finally, the last category is that of ultra-processed food ('AUT').
This means a Food which:
- has undergone a significant modification of its original structure by a sophisticated production process (extrusion, purification, etc.);
- And/or, to which one or more external substances have been added (technological additives, colorings, flavoring agents) but also ingredients from highly processed food products (glucose syrup, lecithin, refined oils, etc.):
- All these substances are designated by experts under the generic term: Ultra-transformation markers (MUT).
The history of ultra-processed foods
A significant part of our diet is made up of products that did not exist 50 years ago .
The modifications that have been made by the food industry have first of all had a main positive and fundamental objective: health safety, with products free of pathogens and which keep well.
Originally: limiting food poisoning
It should be remembered here that food poisoning was the leading cause of death in France in the 1950s.
This data allows us to better understand the pressure put by public authorities on professionals for food safety.
This improvement in sanitary quality was possible by the implementation of production processes such as:
- Uperization etc.
At the same time, the use of “preservative” additives made it possible to limit the development of microorganisms during the life of the product. The very notions of DLUO or DLC are also means of improving health quality.
The use of new processes and food additives were therefore seen in the 1960s as symbols of progress, among many others at that time.
From there to abusing it, there was only one step, which was quickly taken!
Dyes; flavor enhancers; salt additions; sugar and saturated fat; use of extrusion to change the texture of foods etc.
Apart from microbial quality which remained under close surveillance by the authorities, all other parameters could be technologically optimized to make foods more attractive.
Children and young people are even more targeted consumers with “fun” offers, including the famous breakfast “cereals” which are mainly concentrated sugars and saturated lipids…
A necessary framework from the 80s
Health authorities understood, from the 1980s, that it was necessary to regulate the use of food additives.
This was initiated by the European 'E' nomenclature, allowing easy identification of additives on labels.
The specialized agencies of EFSA and ANSES carry out evaluations of these additives, regularly leading to the banning of some or the regulation of their use. However, it must be recognized that isolating the long-term effects of each additive is an almost impossible task.
Conversely, all large-scale studies on food (SU.VI.MAX, Nutri Net-Santé and others) have observed significant correlations between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and health problems (diabetes, obesity, prevalence of certain cancers, heart problems, etc.).
It is therefore legitimate to warn against the regular and significant consumption of ultra-processed foods, to return to a more natural, more plant-based diet and “homemade” cooking.
How important are these Ultra-processed foods in our diet?
Ultra-processed foods represent 2/3 of food products , even among organic products!
Scientific studies which have specifically observed this subject (Davidou, SIGA, etc.) have concluded:
- That 2/3 of the food products available are TUEs (ultra-processed foods), and that undoubtedly more than 90% of food advertisements concern TUEs!
- That they represent 1/3 of our daily energy intake on average.
- That all consumption styles and product families are concerned:
- 50% of ORGANIC foods are TUEs. Even if the added ingredients (refined oils, natural flavors, glucose syrup, etc.) are less impactful and in lower proportions than in standard foods.
- That Vegans and Vegetarians consume a slightly higher proportion of ultra-processed foods (respectively 39 and 37% of caloric intake), compared to Omnivores (33%). Surprising result but which is undoubtedly explained by the importance in this category of under-30s, large consumers of snacking products.
What are the risks and dangers of consuming ultra-processed foods?
There are two types of risks perfectly identified and demonstrated, in the event of frequent consumption of TUEs, (when these represent more than 15% of the daily caloric intake)
- Those linked to excess caloric consumption induced by the consumption of TUEs: obesity, diabetes, heart problems.
- Those linked to the imbalance of the intestinal flora , mainly linked to the presence of additives and in particular preservatives in TUEs: disruption of transit, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), etc.
The correlation between AUT consumption and risk of obesity is very strong. Indeed, the majority of AUTs are overloaded with carbohydrates and lipids and generate less feeling of satiety than natural foods: increased intake of high-energy foods inevitably leads to higher risks of obesity.
The increased risk of diabetes and/or heart problems also results from the overload of sugars and saturated fats common in TUEs.
Other longer-term risks are mentioned, such as the increase in certain cancers or the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease, and evaluation studies are underway on these subjects.
The solution: eat better, simpler, more natural, from childhood!
We now know that the consumption of ultra-processed foods is not harmless for our health, and that we should reasonably aim to limit it to less than 20% of the total diet.
This is particularly important for children, the preferred targets of fun products rich in sugars, fats and additives since the correlation 'AUT' and obesity is clearly established.
This new information further strengthens the arguments in favor of a healthier diet, with more plant-based, minimally processed products.
There are hundreds of sources of information (books, web) and all the networks of nutritionists and dietitians to help you eat better: it is worth getting advice and even your food budget will benefit!!
We will limit ourselves here to recalling the importance of good food education for children to avoid them as much as possible from avoidable inconveniences with a few simple precautions with regard to ultra-processed but fun foods (candy, gummies, sodas). , cereals etc.) which particularly target them.
What food supplement for the microbiota and unbalanced intestinal flora?
The degradation of the intestinal microbiota is an important marker of a diet too rich in AUT .
The international PURE study carried out in more than 20 countries clearly highlighted that regular consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases.
In the Argalys range, the Vegaflore formula, which combines Pre & Probiotics , provides effective help for intestines damaged by TUEs.
The contribution of bacteria from the Vegaflore microbiota will make it possible to reorient your intestinal flora , to be maintained with a more natural diet rich in fiber (fruits and vegetables).