Ultra-Processed Foods are Out of Control in the US

Posted by Freddy Parra on

Let's talk about something that is on the tip of everyone's tongue but never fully digested: ultra-processed foods. While the jury is still out on whether these foods are truly addictive, there's no doubt that they're a health hazard. We are talking about foods linked to a wide range of health problems, from cardiovascular issues to cerebrovascular diseases. Same foods the Big Food industry has stakes in the shelves of our pantries, replacing our great-grandma’s recipes with microwavable imitations, not by mistake, but by design. Under the nonsensical flag of how time-consuming and expensive cooking is, the food industry is the father of two generations of people who don’t know how to cook. So, you might think cooking is a lost art, but it’s time to reclaim what's been a core part of human existence since, well, forever.

Some Context

Let's start by hopping in the time machine back to the first half of the 1900s when American kitchens were all about simplicity and natural ingredients. 90% of the food you ate came fresh from farms or local markets, whole delicious super-nutritious foods. But as we progressed through the 20th century, the United States' nutrition got side-tracked. The 1960s meant not only women’s liberation but also the entrance of pre-cooked meals into the kitchen and dinners in front of the TV. That same decade will witness the demonization of animal fats in nutrition when “scientists” like Ancel Keys falsely sustained that animal fats were the principal cause of heart diseases; or D. Mark Hegsted (head of nutrition al the USDA) and Dr. Fredrick J. Stare (chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department) who were paid for the sugar industry to take the attention out of the sugar as the culprit and transfer it to the animal fats. This led to the misguided rise during the 80s and 90s of grains and sugars as "healthier" alternatives.

Those were the years that witnessed the failed FDA's infamous food pyramid as well. This carbohydrate-rich base pyramid became the nutrition guideline for schools and households alike, despite later studies showing that a high-carb diet is linked to obesity and diabetes. Today there are still generations that believe pasta, wheat flour, white bread, rice, or cereal should be present in every meal we eat. 

This shift laid the foundation for the dominance of ultra-processed foods we witness these days. According to Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, today ultra-processed foods make up 73% of the US food supply.


The Grim Reality

Now let's chew on some sobering stats in this resultant heartbreaking landscape. A whopping 40% of Americans are obese, and about 70% are overweight, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).  It’s not just about your pants feeling snug; we're talking about a heightened risk for diseases like diabetes, heart issues, and even some cancers. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology noted that obesity alone could be linked to at least 13 different types of cancer.

The societal impacts are equally disheartening. Obese individuals face employment discrimination, fewer relationship opportunities, and a lack of social support. A 2017 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health even suggested that weight bias could significantly impact mental health, including risks for depression and anxiety.

However, obesity is just one facet of a larger issue. One doesn't have to be overweight to suffer the health consequences of consuming what Big Food markets so effectively. The implications extend far beyond weight—impacting everything from children's health to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


Profit Over People

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty of why this is happening. It's not a matter of bad luck; it's a matter of bad policy. While the USDA doles out more than $25 billion annually to support agriculture, a measly 1% goes to fruits and vegetables. The rest? 99% funneled into subsidy crops like corn, wheat, and soy. These are the very crops that are transformed into the ultra-processed foods lining our grocery shelves. It’s not an accident; it’s an industry pushed by a combination of campaign financing, lobbying, and litigation.

So, we need to face the facts: it's not as simple as blaming the individual with the mantra of "personal responsibility." Just eat less and exercise more; it's a matter of willpower and self-control. The reality is more complex. Telling someone to "just eat less and exercise more" in a landscape littered with convenient junk that adapts very well to a fast-paced lifestyle, is pretty much futile. A study from The Lancet in 2015 revealed that obesity isn't merely an individual issue; it's a complex, systemic problem exacerbated by poor food options.


What can we do? Changing the food scene is nothing short of a revolution. It demands our full engagement to drive policies toward a healthier food system. Politicians won't take the initiative without our push. We're not on the brink of that change, but it’s not out of reach, just look at what just happened with the Auto Workers. 

It starts with us — making better choices, opting for whole foods, and supporting local farmers. Each action, each voice, can amplify the message and push for policy shifts. It’s a long hike, but it begins with a single step.

Meanwhile, I beg you, take control of your health. Be aware of what you are consuming, I mean your nutrition and what you scroll and read. Exercise. Drink water. Sleep properly and trust in your body's amazing ability to heal when we feed them the right nutrients. Then, internalize that we've been misled into believing that cooking is arduous, time-consuming, and expensive—a falsehood perpetuated by the Big Food for profit. The truth is that preparing real food is affordable and accessible with a little practice. It’s a basic wholesome activity that has been with us since the beginning. So, pick up that knife, put on your favorite playlist, and get the family involved. We are here, with you on this journey. Put down that fast food, reclaim your kitchen, and take control of your health. Trust me, your future self will thank you.


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