Why diet experts are wrong about packaged foods
Are baked beans healthy? This was the question that set Twitter on fire last week. According to food policy expert and author Rob Percival, the much-loved British ingredient brainwashes children to develop a taste for sweet foods from a young age, causing them to grow up to be junk food addicts. And he didn’t stop there.
In a detailed Twitter thread — which has garnered 150,000 views — he notes that the same applies to baby food and children’s snacks.
Soon, nutritionist Professor Tim Spector got involved, highlighting the dangers of a range of supermarket favorites – bread, cake and even flour.
Why are these foods supposedly so bad for our bodies?
Experts say it’s super treatable.
This means that they are made in a factory with lots of ingredients listed on the back of the package, and they often contain chemicals to extend the shelf life.
Ultra-processed foods (UPF) have, over the past few years, become the biggest bad wolf in the diet world, linked to everything from cancer to bipolar disorder.
This was highlighted last month in The Mail on Sunday’s serialization of Dr Chris Van Tolkien’s new book on UPFs.
I’m slowly getting tired of this trend. But this recent Twitter debacle has me really mad.
The warnings prompted a flurry of questions from a confused and concerned Twitter user. How about expensive canned beans? Are they better or should the sauce be rinsed off? Is cake good if you make it at home without adding chemicals? What about canned potatoes?
It was a perfect illustration of why telling us to stay away from processed foods risks creating more confusion.
The truth is, just because a food comes in a box doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. In fact, many of the products that fresh food evangelists turn up their noses—pots of pasta sauce, packaged breads and some premade meals—are, dare I say it, healthy.
That was the conclusion of the British Nutrition Foundation last week, according to a statement that Rob Percival was responding to in his tweets. The charity has come under attack over claims that frozen fish sticks and baked beans are healthy, with critics accusing it of bias due to the funding it receives from major food brands.
Bridget Benelam, a spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation, responded: ‘Food manufacturers pay us to advise them on food policies to make their food healthier. We think this is an important business and we’re always transparent about it.
So let’s take a look at the research on these UPF distortions.
The most widely used definition of the term comes from a research paper published in 2016 by a group of Brazilian scientists. Their research was based on studies that tracked the diets and health outcomes of hundreds of thousands of people living in the United States and Western Europe, including the United Kingdom.
It was found that people who ate a lot of foods that went through many industrial processes had a higher risk of obesity. The scientists classified foods into four groups according to their level of processing, which they called the Nova classification.
Fresh meat and fish and dried nuts are in the healthy, unprocessed group. Condiments, such as vinegar and salted butter, are in the second “minimally processed” group. The third group – canned fruit, smoked meats and fresh, unpackaged supermarket bread – should be limited. Group 4 is ultra-processed—the worst kind, contains five or more ingredients, and should be avoided. This consists of mass-produced packaged breads, pasta sauces, cereals, and fruit yogurts.
But healthy eating doesn’t work that way.
“The NOVA system does not take into account the nutrients in the food,” says Steve Blackburn, a registered dietitian with the NHS in London. “There are a lot of foods out there that are just as nutritious, as well as easy to prepare, but have been ‘processed.’ Grains, for example.
Low-sugar whole grains like Weetabix are a great source of fiber, which protects against bowel cancer. We don’t get enough of it. Most are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, and if you add milk you get a little protein and calcium, which is great for bone health and energy.
“Breakfast cereals provide 30 to 40 per cent of the nutrients children need,” adds Professor Tom Sanders, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London.
There are many other examples. Take the ultra-processed pasta sauce. One serving of Waitrose’s Basic Bolognese Sauce contains 29 calories, 1 teaspoon of sugar and barely a trace of salt and fat. The sugar content comes from the tomatoes and the tomato puree – so it’s no different than what you might make at home. The only unusual ingredient is lactic acid, which helps the sauce stay fresh longer.
What about packaged bread at the supermarket?
Sainsbury’s Multiseed Farmhouse Wholemeal Bread contains almost half the calories and fewer grams of sugar than a premium multigrain loaf freshly baked by artisan bakery chain Gail’s. There is also more fiber in the bagged version.
Ready meals these days aren’t that bad either, thanks to government incentives to cut down on sugar, salt and fat.
The ingredients in Sainsbury’s Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta Bake are a little different than what you might be used to at home. It also contains 185 fewer calories, a teaspoon less salt and two-thirds less fat than a bowl of fresh tomato and mozzarella pasta from Italian restaurant chain Vapiano.
‘If you buy a cheap Victorian sponge cake, it’s likely to be less fattening than one you’d make at home,’ says Professor Sanders.
But what about all the bad chemicals, you might ask. Don’t they kidnap our appetite and spoil our insides?
As explained above, not all processed foods contain an endless list of exotic ingredients. And not all additives deserve a bad rap.
“Most of them are there to prevent us from getting food poisoning,” says Professor Sanders. Additional vitamins and minerals are considered as extras. This is part of the reason why we have virtually eliminated nutrient deficiencies in many parts of the world.
There is research showing that some additives—particularly emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners—can destroy the healthy bacteria in our gut, which are said to be key to maintaining a healthy weight, among other benefits. But many studies have been done in rodents, and it is not yet proven that it is the ultra-processed food that changes the gut bacteria, and not something else.
As for claims that sweet foods prompt young minds to seek junk food later in life, experts disagree. “Children’s brains are naturally programmed to seek out fatty, sweet, energy-dense foods – it’s their way of surviving,” explains Professor Sanders.
The Anti-Processed Food Brigade often points to brain imaging studies to prove that these things are ‘addictive’. Experiments found that when participants looked at pictures of junk food, the reward centers in their brains “lit up.”
‘We’ve learned over time that it tastes lovely,’ says Professor Sanders. This is not the same as addiction. This is like saying we are addicted to anything that gives us pleasure.
Mr Blackburn adds: ‘The patients I treat are unhealthily thin and don’t have much of an appetite. They mostly eat prepared meals that are high in sugar and calories, as they are easy to eat if you have mouth sores and help with weight gain. If they were addicted, patients wouldn’t stop taking it — but we have the opposite problem.
The British consume a lot of junk food, such as cakes, biscuits, chips and fast food. About a fifth of people say they eat it at least once or twice a week. But it is not unhealthy because it is made in a factory. It just so happens that a lot of these products are high in fat, sugar, salt, and most importantly, calories. It doesn’t take a stark scientist to know that people who eat too many calories are more likely to develop obesity and related health conditions.
Prof Sanders says: “It’s easier to overeat because these foods taste delicious – especially if they’re snacks like crisps and chocolate and eaten mindlessly in front of the TV.”
Studies also show that people who eat a lot of this type of food are more likely to do other unhealthy things, such as avoiding exercise, smoking, drinking, and working varied shifts.
So how do we know if the way food is made is behind the health problems, or if it is something else?
It should also be noted that most ultra-processed foods are eaten by people on low incomes.
And what’s the point of making them feel guilty or embarrassed for choosing food they can afford? It’s not just about the money — not everyone has the spare time to whip up homemade pasta sauce after a long day at work. So what should we eat?
“No food should be avoided unless you have an allergy,” says Blackburn. Do not eat foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt and calories often, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Now, where have you heard this advice before?