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  • Writer's pictureKrista J Essler LAc

What are ultra-processed foods (UPFs)?

whole food, moderately processed food, ultra-processed food
Various stages of processing of an apple

According to Chris van Tulleken, an infectious disease specialist and author of Ultra Processed People, the best way to determine if a food is ultra-processed is if it is “...wrapped in plastic and it’s got something that you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen.” Those things that aren’t in your home kitchen are known as food additives. And today, food additives are an ingredient in approximately 60% of what Americans have in their shopping carts.(1) They can be preservatives, flavorings, colorants, emulsifiers, or even a highly processed ingredient such as high-fructose corn syrup.

The photo above demonstrates an apple at various stages of processing. The unprocessed apple is a whole food, found just as it is in nature. The applesauce, while it contains one ingredient not typically found in your home kitchen, is considered moderately processed. But the apple pie that sits on a shelf for months without refrigeration is deemed to be ultra-processed.

So what is it about this (unfortunately) tasty food that makes it ultra-processed? The answer lies in the ingredients. The "apple fruit pie" contains: enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, water, palm oil, glycerine, dehydrated apples (treated with sulfur dioxide to retain color), contains 2% or less: modified cornstarch, salt, preservatives (sodium proprionate, sodium benzoate, citric acid), flour (malted barley, wheat), dextrose, xanthan gum, cinnamon, sorbitan monostearate, natural flavors, calcium carbonate, agar-agar, mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin. Plus there is no detailed information on additives that may have been used in the production of the processed ingredients such as palm oil, modified cornstarch, and the flours.

Some ingredients belong to the special category of emulsifiers: mono- and diglycerides, sorbitan monostearate, xanthan gum, and soy lecithin. These substances not only help fat-based and water-based ingredients stay mixed together, but also aid industrial production by keeping mixtures from sticking to equipment as they roll down the production line. This category of additives has been shown to disrupt the healthy bacteria of the gut, aggravate blood sugar imbalances, and further create an environment for the onset or worsening of intestinal permeability aka leaky gut.(2)

All of these symptoms together may contribute to a diagnosis of colitis or irritable bowel syndrome. Further, this can be complicated by a secondary diagnosis of metabolic syndrome or even diabetes due to blood sugar imbalance issues or dysglycemia.

Permanent dietary changes take patience to put in to place and an openess to understanding the effects on your body. A great start is taking the time to read the labels at the store before you purchase. So, keep reading, deepen your knowledge, and if you’re in need of guidance for putting it together for you and your specific needs, please reach out for a consultation.

Be well!

Dr Krista J Essler, DTCM, LAc

Full disclosure on the photo. I had the apple and applesauce at home but did not purchase the ultra-processed item. I downloaded it from a seller's website and photoshopped it into the image. If it looks a little wonky, it's because my Adobe skills are lacking. k.

(2) De Siena M, Raoul P, Costantini L, Scarpellini E, Cintoni M, Gasbarrini A, Rinninella E, Mele MC. Food Emulsifiers and Metabolic Syndrome: The Role of the Gut Microbiota. Foods. 2022 Jul 25;11(15):2205. doi: 10.3390/foods11152205. PMID: 35892789; PMCID: PMC9331555.

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