Ultra-Processed Food and Our Generation: Does the food we eat engineer our own epidemics of disease?

VAISHNAVI BHAMIDI

A few days ago, when I was deleting random WhatsApp posts from my phone’s camera roll, I came across a video of an infant who liked drinking soda more than milk. In fact, the child was so addicted to sugary drinks that he would cry every time the can was taken away. Although the video started off cute, the longer I watched it, the greater I developed a sense of disgust and regret. There was something so fundamentally jarring about this infant’s attraction to sugar. Several days later, I saw this headline on Scientific American: 

The Cancer-Obesity Time Bomb: Malignancies are on the rise in the most obese generation in history  

At that moment, I immediately understood my indeterminate apprehension towards that WhatsApp video. It is generally accepted that diets consisting of high fat and high sugar foods weaken heart health, and increase weight gain. These consequences are related to increasing an individual’s risk of developing complications, such as coronary artery disease and diabetes. However, research has now shown that obesity is also correlated with a higher risk of developing at least thirteen different types of cancers in organs including but not limited to: the stomach, gall bladder, brain membrane, prostate, pancreas, colon, liver, and breast [2,8]. Cancer Research UK, a cancer research and awareness charity based in London, states that bowel, kidney, and liver cancers are, in this day and age, more likely to be caused by being overweight than by being a smoker [4]. 

What is even more alarming is that younger generations, who are increasingly heavier than their parents, are actually at a higher risk of being obese and developing these cancer-related malignancies at earlier ages [2]. Although the exact mechanism for obesity-cancer interactions are not conclusive, many plausible theories have been proposed and tested. Some point to how over-nutrition can lead to metabolic abnormalities which can overproduce growth factors for cells, leading them to proliferate more rapidly [6]. Other theories discuss the harms of ‘visceral fat’ (ie. the adipose tissue that surrounds internal organs) and how this tissue can secrete hormones which increase the risk of cancer [4]. A study done by a team of researchers at Harvard found that obesity was associated with tumor inflammation and elevated levels of immune cells [3]. 

Regardless of the mechanism, it is undeniable that the distressing outcomes of these studies are at least partially, if not completely, correlated with our society’s complicated relationship with food. Educated, economically-advantaged, well-informed individuals like you and I have a general understanding of what good nutrition entails. Yet, many of us continue to make poor choices, in spite of having access to better, more wholesome food. This may not be entirely our own fault, though.

The conglomerate of corporate food giants, informally referred to as ‘Big Food’, have been receiving substantially more complaints from scientists about ultra-processed foods as of late. In order to understand why, it is first important to understand what ultra-processing is. Ultra-processed foods are foods which have undergone substantial industrial enhancements in the form of added preservatives, sweeteners, and colour enhancers [1]. Most foods are somewhat processed, but this category of processing is essentially equivalent to artificially re-inventing that item. Foods such as pre-made meals, mass-produced bread, carbonated drinks, juices, cakes and margarine all fall into this category. Statistics Canada found that in 2015, 47% of Canadian adults’ daily calorie intake came from ultra-processed foods [7]. Furthermore, they also reported a 31% increase in the risk of developing obesity in those who got more calories from ultra-processed food [7].

Interestingly, the National Institute of Health in the United States published findings that when individuals were given a choice between diets consisting of low-processed or ultra-processed foods, the latter was not only preferred, but people actually ate them faster [9]. The implications of this study are pivotal. It suggests that we have a biological preference for foods with lower nutrients and higher fats which do not provoke satiety, but cravings [5]. Researchers postulate that this may be because of brain-gut signals which are disrupted by ultra-processed foods, which allow us to keep on eating, even after we are full [5]. 

In short, Big Food is engineering products that cause big weight gain and an even bigger risk of chronic and fatal disease

I now understand what unsettled me the most about the WhatsApp video that started this discussion. It was our submissive acceptance of the addictiveness of ultra-processed foods. We are a society that not only accustoms children to consume artificially-enhanced products, but we also find humour in how addictive these foods are. The only way to curtail the rapidly escalating prevalence of obesity and cancer and ensure the health of future generations is to take a good, close look at what we are eating and whether we are engineering our own diseases.  

 

References

[1] Gallagher, J. (2019). Ultra-processed food linked to early death. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48446924.

[2] McGinley, L. (2019). Obesity might soon replace tobacco as top cause of cancer, yet few are aware of link. National Post. https://nationalpost.com/news/world/obesity-might-replace-tobacco-as-top-cause-for-cancer-yet-only-few-are-aware-of-the-link.

[3] Mcreevey, S. (2019). Obesity cancer connection. Harvard Medical School. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/obesity-cancer-connection.

[4] Roberts, M. (2019). Obesity ‘causes more cases of some cancers than smoking. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48826850.

[5] Shell, R. E. (2019). A new theory of obesity. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-theory-of-obesity/.

[6] Smith, L. A., O’Flanagan, C. H., Bowers, L. W., Allott, E. H., & Hursting, S. D. (2018). Translating Mechanism-Based Strategies to Break the Obesity-Cancer Link: A Narrative Review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 118(4), 652–667. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2017.08.112.

[7] The Canadian Press. (2019). Study links diet of ultra-processed foods to chronic disease risk. CBC News.https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/ultra-processed-foods-chronic-disease-risk-1.5192471.

[8] Wallis, C. (2019). The cancer-obesity time bomb. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-cancer-obesity-time-bomb/

[9] Young, L. (2019). We know highly processed food is bad for us. Why do we keep eating it? Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/5331125/ultra-processed-food-nutrition/.