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Recently, a new study came out implying that processed foods are the culprits behind obesity and potentially diseases associated with it. First of all, I'm a huge fan of Dr. Kevin Hall(leading author) and his work on bioenergetics and mathematical modeling. This study is a step in the right direction but the implications, not so much. In this article, we will delve into what the issues are here. The goal is smart and healthy, not fearful, consumerism. The article was written as a quick response so expect a few hiccups for the sake of simplicity.
The study uses the following NOVA Classification(paraphrased below):
First of all, the study should be called "Consumption of Pre-selected Ultra-processed vs. Minimally Processed Foods Based on NOVA Classification Cause Excess Calorie Intake & Weight Gain" or as one would call it "Processed Foods vs. Processed Foods Cause Excess Intake & Weight Gain". Also, hummus LITERALLY uses a device called "food processor" to make and it's called "unprocessed" in this study along with other paradoxical foods!?!
The problem here is that there are way too many black swans such as zero calorie sweetened sparkling water which, unless I am wrong with the math here or there is voodoo magic involved, doesn't seem to be causing weight gain but happens to be ultra-processed based on NOVA Classification. Additionally, more processed foods such as cheese may be more satiating and superior to less processed foods such as milk when it comes to energy intake.
In other words, the premise(NOVA Classification) for the study is flawed and can be outright dismissed. However, there is much we can learn from here that deserves priceless attention.
Recently, I read a paper by Sarah Bowen Et. Al called "The Joy of Cooking?" and finished a podcast with James Kennedy about Chemophobia. and I've come to realize that many smart people have the potential to fall towards a naturalist fallacy(redemption for sins? requires more hard work? Rocky Balboa Syndrome?) in which whatever is close to nature is superior and the NOVA Classification (and this study) seems to imply that as well while totally negating the mechanisms through which certain processed foods work/not work and certain whole foods work/not work. "The Joy of Cooking" eloquently points out why we need modern tools and processes to tackle the modern problems of our times. If there's one thing we know, throughout human evolution, mankind has always evaded nature whether it is through constructing shelters, filtering water, selectively breeding animals and plants, combating diseases and viruses or analyzing toxicology of edible foods etc. Lets not appeal to nature for salvation as it has erratically created and wiped out many life forms while giving us nothing but a fragile body one swipe from a predator away from an entrails display. Nature has also processed foods, complete with its own additives, flavors, crystalline networks, toxins and chemicals. Can we also specify ALL ingredients and naturally occurring toxins in these so-called "natural" and "whole" foods based on NOVA classification? We want more participation in science/STEM while we continue to dismiss ingredient lists as evil and unhealthy fattening chemicals?
Below is a result of our Instagram poll on whether people would eat an egg if they were shown only the chemical composition of an egg. The results were above 85% until we revealed what the actual foods was. Maybe, lets hunt for mechanisms rather than outright dismissal which is exactly how many people will take this study to be. Maybe, instead of dismissal, you can ask, "What does this chemical/additive do?"
"Organic", "real", "natural" and now "minimally processed". Creating more food labels misdirects consumers from core mechanisms that may be contributing to their health outcomes and food companies will find loopholes under these constraints as well(selective breeding in agriculture?) The middleman industry will continue to thrive while we continue to this cat and mouse game in food, health and nutrition. This may put additional stress on shoppers, farmers, food companies and potentially the government as well.
An emerging field of multi-disciplinary science now focuses on food structure, modeling food digestion and understanding the health consequences of this process. This is where the "whole food" and "processed foods" have a common ground when it comes to success of outcomes. What's one of the key difference between 40g of carbs from potato vs. 40g of carbs from soda? Food structure.
The most likely key feature behind the success between many "ultraprocessed foods" and "unprocessed foods", based on NOVA classification, is that the nutrient transit times and uptake are regulated by the disintegration of foods in the gastrointestinal tract. Ultra-refined carbohydrates, for example, due to more surface area rapidly hydrolyze during digestion while carbohydrates inside plant cell walls potentially delay or inhibit the process of digestion.
Vitro models can help simulate these processes and we can engineer foods or processes that can enhance the satiating and nutrient delivery capacity of foods, thereby reducing energy intake and countering obesity.
This is just the tip of the ice-berg and a beautiful world to explore. Additionally, with vegan meats right in the market which are structurally rebuilt processed foods, you need a better yardstick than "processed" vs. "unprocessed", especially if they end up having lower protein and reduce energy intake, superior to the actual meat it's trying to copy!
One of the biggest problem with interpreting many nutrition studies, including this one, is that it has way too many confounders in the form of mixed meals so it places a perfect bulls-eye on food companies but it doesn't seem to offer any solutions or tease out what kind of processing or mechanism can actually be useful. Maybe a designed experiment consisting of different processed foods based on various parameters and structures aiding us in finding convenient and processed foods that actually work?
If you think observational studies have way too many confounders in them, even randomized dietary studies such as this one is pretty much a confounder festival as there are thousands of chemicals and ingredients interacting with each which can cumulatively influence the digestion.
With the knowledge of how food structure and digestion works while having a downstream impact on the endocrine system, food companies are in a tough spot when it comes to what consumers want.
For example, if someone is advocating for a "high protein diet" for fat loss, the most "purified" version of protein is a hydrolyzed protein shake/water which, practically speaking, may fare worse than a zero calorie sweetened placebo or water when it comes to reducing energy intake. However, the food company fulfilled the consumer's need for "more protein!". This REALLY sets up food companies for a no-win situation.
When a chef, celebrity, influencer or customer talks about food, they usually prefer foods that are described in the likes of "rich", "creamy", "melt-in-your-mouth", "smooth" etc.. These words are ingrained in the Western culture and language, synonymous with food consumption. The problem is, in order to get those food structures that consumers want, you have to make them prone to rapid digestion and hydrolyses which causes rapid nutrient uptake. The VERY foods that consumers WANT to fight obesity will have the characteristics to induce it!
What's hypocritical is that consumers have different expectations for the structural properties of processed foods and whole foods. An avocado, steak or pecan can be coarse and fibrous and consumers are fine with it but when a processed food has coarse or fibrous texture, you get shredded apart(unless you market it as "vegan meat" and then consumers expect it to be like meat.)
This study is bittersweet. The premise is well-intended but in practical interpretation, it strawmans.
Fahad is the founder of Ketogeek and hosts the Ketogeek Podcast, a world class health show about food, nutrition and health. He is into resistance training, Ashtanga yoga, calisthenics and various forms of training styles. Armed with a idealistic goals distilled in a world of realism, his goal is to help the world make a better place. He leads a life of extreme generalism or as he describes it, 'The Renaissance Lifestyle'.
“It never ceases to amaze me how prosaic, pedestrian, unimaginative people can persistently pontificate about classical grammatical structure as though it's fucking rocket science. These must be the same people who hate Picasso, because he couldn't keep the paint inside the lines and the colors never matched the numbers.”
― Abbe Diaz