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Why Indians need to reject ultra processed foods

According to important new reports, an increasing number of Indians are consuming ultra processed foods, increasing chances of severe diseases and death

You need to reject ultra processed foods.
You need to reject ultra processed foods. (Needpix)

If it’s too good to resist, it’s probably not good for you. This couldn’t be truer in the current times as far as our food and eating habits are concerned. With every passing day, more Indians are consuming ultra-processed foods. The overall per capita sales of ultra-processed foods and beverages in India grew from $900 million in 2006 to over $37.9 billion in 2019, according to a 2023 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) called The Growth Of Ultra-Processed Foods In India. Consumption of such foods has grown consistently in India, 13.37% between 2011 to 2021, which is among the highest globally. 

This is a concerning trend, as as a new study has found a direct association between ultra-processed foods and 32 harmful health conditions. These include a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, mental health, Type 2 diabetes, and early death. The study titled Ultra-Processed Food Exposure And Adverse Health Outcomes published in the British Medical Journal on 28 February.

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It is a systematic review of 45 pooled meta analyses probing the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health. “Greater exposure to ultra-processed food was associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, especially cardiometabolic, common mental disorder, and mortality outcomes,” the researchers conclude, while urging effective public health measures to target and reduce exposure to ultra-processed foods. 

Ultra-processed foods can’t really be called ‘food’. They’re more like edible substances primarily composed of chemically modified extracts from food sources, along with additives to enhance taste, texture, appearance, and durability. These include a broad range of ready-to-eat products, including packaged snacks, carbonated soft drinks, instant noodles, and ready-made meals.

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A lot of what we eat, including whole grains such as rice, wheat, flour, pulses, dosa batter, etc. are processed to an extent. But ultra-processed foods contain low amounts of proteins, vitamins, phytochemicals, minerals and dietary fibre, while being but are rich in fat (saturated fatty acids), salt and sugar and high in calories. Some of the most common ultra-processed foods in India are biscuits, breakfast cereal, bhujia and packaged snacks including several health bars, sweetened beverages including juices, fast food, and ready-to-eat meals.

There’s a simple visual cue to identifying ultra-processed foods, according to Shashank Mehta, co-founder and CEO of The Whole Truth Foods. Basically, beware of any food that comes in a ‘perfect’ shape, like a circle, star, or square. “Such foods have a list of ingredients that sound more like chemicals than food, the more the chemicals, the more processed they are. If something is way too sweet than you expect it to be, it is ultra-processed and has sugar substitutes. Also, any food that comes in perfect, bright colours such as pink, blue, red… such colours don’t exist in nature the way they exist in packaged foods. If you see such colours, you know it is ultra-processed,” says Mehta.

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According to a study, Indian ultra-processed foods and beverages have the second highest median total sugar content, says Deepti Khatuja, head and clinical nutritionist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. “Indian packaged foods and beverages also had the highest levels of saturated fat, total sugars, and energy density,” she adds. Niyati Naik, Clinical Dietician, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital Mumbai, says that apart from being really bad for our health, ultra-processed foods can also affect our mood, cognition, and behaviour, and interfere with the balance of hormones in the long run. They can also disrupt our gut microbiome, which plays a key role in our immune system and metabolism.   

One of the reasons for the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods in India is growing income. Other reasons include convenience, longer shelf life and quick access, adds the WHO report. However, unlike in the US and the UK where the consumption of ultra-processed foods is much higher, people in India can act quickly and limit the damage with a robust nutrition policy, regulation, and being mindful about food and eating behaviours. “It’s essential to be mindful of both ultra-processed and fried foods in your diet and aim for a balanced and nutritious eating pattern to promote overall health,” says Naik. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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