Why do people find it challenging to resist the allure of chips, cereals, cakes, and other ultra-processed foods, despite being aware of their potential health risks? New scientific insights suggest that the manufacturing processes behind these foods may play a role by essentially “predigesting” raw ingredients. This process involves breaking down basic food crops like corn, wheat, and potatoes into molecular parts or “slurries,” which are then reassembled into various food products. The result is a quick and easy-to-digest food product that may interfere with the body’s natural signals of fullness.
This unconventional digestion process, unlike the natural breakdown of whole foods in the gastrointestinal system, may contribute to overeating. Teeth designed to tear food apart and a digestive system evolved for breaking down whole foods into essential nutrients are bypassed by these ultra-processed foods. As a consequence, the body may not send signals of fullness to the brain in the intended manner.
The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in the US food supply is estimated to be around 73%. A clinical trial conducted in 2019 revealed that individuals consuming an ultra-processed diet tended to eat more calories and gained weight compared to those on a diet of minimally processed foods. Despite having the same quantity of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, salt, and carbohydrates, the ultra-processed diet led to weight gain, highlighting the potential impact of these foods on overconsumption.
Beyond the issue of weight gain, the process of breaking down and reassembling food may result in nutrient loss. Foods subjected to such processing may lack the essential vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients needed by the human body. This raises concerns about the nutritional quality of ultra-processed foods and their potential contribution to various health issues, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
While food processing has been a part of human history for centuries, the excessive processing of food into molecular components may pose risks to human health. Researchers emphasize the challenges of reformulating ultra-processed foods to mitigate their effects on calorie intake and weight gain, urging a better understanding of the mechanisms driving overconsumption of these foods.