Increased risks of diabetes, heart issues, obesity, and cancer are just some of the ways that highly processed foods impact human health. Research over the past 10 years has also demonstrated just how much American’s highly processed food pantry staples affect the brain as well.1
Studies have found that mental effects of highly processed foods include depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. One 2022 study followed nearly 11,000 Brazilian adults over a decade and found a correlation between eating ultra-processed foods and decreased cognitive function, including inability to learn, remember, reason, and solve problems. Researchers found the decline accelerated by 28 percent in people who consumed more than 20 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods.1
While the researchers are unsure of the exact reason for these findings, theories include less diversified gut microbiome, chronic inflammation, and fewer short-chain fatty acids.
60 Percent of American Diet Comes from Processed Foods
Roughly 60 percent of the American diet comes from processed foods.1 With catchy labeling phrases on boxes of cereal, such as “heart healthy” and “lowers cholesterol,” processed food companies have been fooling consumers for decades.
The classification system for ultra-processed foods widely used by nutrition researchers includes heavily manufactured, low-nutrition “foods” with ingredients that are rarely found in homemade foods, such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, and chemical additives. Chemical additives include food dyes, artificial sweeteners and flavors, emulsifiers, and preservatives.
Yahoo News reports that 70 percent of packaged food sold in the United States are considered to be ultra-processed by these standards. In addition, the majority of fast food restaurant foods are considered to be ultra-processed.1
Plant Based Substitutes Are Ultra-processed
Many dieticians, politicians, celebrities, and medical experts are promoting plant-based meat substitutes, such as the Bill Gates endorsed “Beyond Meat” burger. Highly processed ingredients in the Beyond Burger include pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, rice protein, natural flavors, methylcellulose, and potassium chloride.2
Pointing out the potential benefits of fake beef, one registered dietician interviewed for an article published in Good Housekeeping said that Beyond Burgers provide 20 percent of daily value for iron and 100 percent for vitamin B12, and that the plant-based burgers don’t contain antibiotics and hormones.2
Processed Foods Contain Chemicals Engineered to be Addictive
Part of the issue with ultra-processed foods is that they contain additives for color and shelf stability and also chemicals carefully engineered by scientists to be addicting.
Some of the addictive properties of ultra-processed foods have been shown to share the same reward giving properties as crystal meth. One example of this is certain forms of salt that have been developed to dissolve faster than normal salt, delivering a jolt to the brain.3
Kima Cargill, author of “The Science of Overeating,” wrote:
Quite simply, food is not addictive; drugs are addictive. And food companies are putting drugs in our food. The correct name for this problem is food additive addiction, or perhaps refined food addiction.3
Policymakers Have Financial Ties to Processed Food Companies
Influential people and groups, who help shape U.S. dietary guidelines and food policies, often have financial ties to big processed food companies or other financial conflicts of interest. Documents reveal the trade group Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a record of quid pro quos with various food giants marketing processed food. The Academy owns stock in food companies, and has received millions of dollars in contributions from soda and processed food companies.4
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are set to be updated by 2025 by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee established by Congress in the 1980s under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).5 Lawmakers and several organizations are pushing for disclosure of conflicts of interest by all committee members after the discovery that one appointed member, Fatima Cody Stanford, has been paid tens of thousands of dollars by pharmaceutical companies that manufacture weight loss and obesity drugs.6
Questions are being raised about whether officials USDA and DHHS and some members of Congress are more loyal to Big Ag, Big Food, and Big Pharma than they are to the American people, as they continue to shape food policy that has the potential to negatively affect public health.
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1 Wadyka S. The link between highly processed foods and brain health. Yahoo News May 4, 2023.
2 Cohen M. Is the Beyond Burger healthy? What to know about its nutritional value. Good Housekeeping Mar. 2, 2023.
3 Cargill K. Stop calling food addictive. The Guardian Aug. 29, 2017.
4 Perkins T. Revealed: group shaping US nutrition receives millions from big food industry. The Guardian Dec. 9, 2022.
5 USDA and DHHS. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
6 Taylor A. Grassley demands transparency on nutrition advisory committee following appointment of obesity drug consultant. KIOW Mar. 20, 2023.