Ultra-processed: Eradicate Them To Protect Lives And Well-being – Health

Ultra-processed: Eradicate Them To Protect Lives And Well-being – Health

The fight against the consumption of ultra-processed products in Colombia has not been an easy path. For years different organizations, actors in the health system and legislators have tried to mitigate the incidence of these foods on public health in the country.

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Beyond the fact that they occur or not, the ideal of those who champion this cause is to reduce the impact of excessive consumption of sugars, sodium, fats and additives, which is reflected in premature mortality rates due to conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.


The discussion around these products increased a couple of years ago, when some health corners began to suggest increasing taxes on these products within the framework of the tax reform. However, there is still a lack of knowledge about the characteristics of these products and their potential risks.

In this context, EL TIEMPO spoke with Teresita Alzate Yepes, a researcher at the University of Antioquia and a member of the NanoBioCáncer colon cancer prevention project, a program of several universities in the country and the Ministry of Science.

What are ultra-processed foods and how to identify them?

There is a classification of food according to its processing. There are four groups that go in a gradation by phases. One is that of foods that are not processed, and that is how they are consumed, like an ear of corn. Those that are minimally processed also fit into this group, such as an arepa.

There are others that are culinary ingredients, which are very natural, but they are not eaten alone, but it is customary to integrate and combine them to produce food. The third group is that of the processed, such as milk, which must be pasteurized, or the bakery.

And finally, the ultra-processed that are both drinks and eatables. These are built, they are not natural based but they are elaborated.

This is what ultra-processed foods are like: a combination of ingredients that are similar in their characteristics to a natural food —in most cases— and have a greater health risk due to this “artificial” composition.

This is how the warning stamps for ultra-processed products in Colombia remained.

What are its real health risks?

It must be borne in mind that for people to like these products, they are added and have high amounts of sodium, sugar or fat —especially trans—, and almost all of them have flavorings, colorings, preservatives, thickeners, and sweeteners.

The issue is that it becomes a permanent source of toxicity, especially for young people.

This means that they have a large number of additives and components that give them a lot of durability, stability over time, are very pleasing to the palate and can even become addictive. Precisely because of their high sugar content, they become a health risk, because in addition to the fact that they are very tasty and can be consumed continuously, the amount of calories they provide can be extremely high.

Then they go to the organism and, added the other calories of the daily consumption, they can become an excess. That is the basic danger in which we are in at this moment in the world: it is a “race” for obesity, a competition between all countries to see who can beat the other in terms of obesity, and each time it is presented in ages earlier.

For which diseases and health conditions do these products carry a risk?

Sugar can affect diseases such as obesity, or risk factors for diabetes, for example. Obesity, which is chronic, leads to inflammation of the organs and can degenerate not only into diabetes but also into cardiovascular problems and hypertension, as well as the vast majority of cancers. Some of them—and those that are on the rise right now—are colon and colorectal cancer.

These foods are damaging the body because they do not have natural fiber, and the body is practically “stretched”, the intestine does not work as it should, fecal matter accumulates, bacteria and abnormal cells proliferate, and cancer occurs easily.

There are those who think that these products are more affordable alternatives for the population with economic limitations, what do you think and what alternatives exist?

These foods are affordable because they are produced in large quantities, with inputs that can be very cheap. They are presented in formats and packages that are highly stable over time, and all of this makes the product cheap. But it is relatively cheap because the price you pay is very low compared to the risk you take.

Teresita Alzate Yepes, researcher at the University of Antioquia and nutrition expert.

The issue is that it becomes a permanent source of toxicity, especially for young people. In Colombia, a third of children are overweight, and there are areas where 4 out of 10 children are worse off. This envisions a disastrous future for the population of a country, because obesity degenerates into a number of diseases in a very short term. The ideal is to eat balanced, balanced, even harvest products that are the cheapest.

If we talk about the economy, instead of buying “paquetes” we could be in the market squares buying cheaper products from the peasants, because they are produced in large quantities that are even lost, and they are the ones with vitamins, fibers, that meatiness that our body needs.

What are the real advantages of not consuming them?

If we talk about beneficial, it would be 100 percent, in the sense that the more natural a food is, the more it has the nutrients that the body assimilates and needs.

(Also read: Gestational diabetes: How to take care of your health during pregnancy?)

There is a discussion about taxes, do they discourage consumption?

The healthy tax must be coupled with educational processes that allow people not only to understand what it is about, but also to be enlightened based on what the benefit is.

In public health, it is assumed that the decrease in the supply and consumption of ultra-processed foods improves the health of the population. But this has to be accompanied by an offer of healthy products and information so that people feel that if it costs them a little more it will be in terms of time, because the value is in health, in the risks that are going to be avoided. .

If a person knew the direct route between obesity and diabetes and all the problems that are generated from it, they could safely assume and understand a healthier diet. That knowledge and that pedagogy must go hand in hand with these processes, but not at all costs.

The industry must not be demonized, but rather accompany it so that it produces healthier things.

Accompaniment methods and work with the industry must be applied to manufacture products that are in line with a public health policy, hand in hand with research, because they are co-responsible.

We cannot go against the industry just because, but think about what there is that can be improved and how; offer healthier products, improve the composition of many drinks that may have a greater amount of fiber, fruit, without flavorings or as much toxic load just to sell more.

Another debate is that of the labels, what do you think about them?

In the countries where they are being used, the change in the decisions that people make has been seen to a great extent. The warning seals are a voice of alert, their role is to tell the consumer “eye that is already under his responsibility.” Ideally, people should know what trans fats and sugar are and what risks they generate.

If I have three types of products on the same shelf and one has two stamps, another a single stamp and the last one has three stamps, then the measure is already saying that the least harmful is the one with a single black stamp. That also affects visually. The more stamps I have, the more risks I am seeing, that is the least a person should know.

And if it does not have stamps, then any product is more natural and is supposed to be healthier. Color is also important because symbolically black is a color of risk and death, even.

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What message do you send to the industry of these products?

The industry must be associated with research and must be interested in selling, but in favor of public health. Surely, a lower sale due to a regulation of this type can make you aware. They are obviously interested in selling, but they are also subjects of what they produce: their own family consumes these foods. We are all consumers of everything.

Science can help. When we don’t make it work and be incorporated into the industry with the intention of generating health benefits, we are failing. The industry must not be demonized, but rather accompany it so that it produces healthier things.

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