The French Vanilla-Flavored Explosive in Your Kitchen

The kitchens of our Baltimore office come well stocked with explosives (and your home kitchen likely does too)...

The stuff I'm talking about is a highly combustible food ingredient called sodium aluminosilicate. It's used to prevent dry ingredients from clumping and caking. A common place you'll find this additive in is the powdered nondairy creamer you might be stirring into your morning coffee...

Get enough of your shelf-stable, French vanilla-flavored powder dispersed into the air... throw in a spark... and you'll get a huge explosion.

But wait, there's more... Powdered creamer also has dipotassium phosphate. And so do pesticides and fertilizer. This stuff is a prime example of an ultra-processed food.

Other examples of ultra-processed foods include the likes of packaged pastries, chips, sodas, sugary cereals, and premade, ready-to-eat foods. And they all have these qualities in common:

  • They're the end result of a laundry list of industrial processing steps.
  • They're also chock-full of preservatives and additives like emulsifiers (thickeners) and artificial colors and flavors.
  • They're usually lacking in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • They're laden with added sugar, salt, and fat.

What's worse, more than 50% of the average American diet consists of ultra-processed foods. That's just for adults... American children have 67% of their daily caloric intake coming from ultra-processed foods.

Constantly feasting on these kinds of foods could be your ticket to early death, not to mention a litany of health problems...

According to a BMJ study published in February, eating ultra-processed foods has direct ties to a whopping number of poor health outcomes. Those negative outcomes were related to early death and cancer, as well as cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, metabolic, respiratory, and mental health issues.

This was no small study, either – with 9.9 million participants in total. And this umbrella review looked at 14 meta-analysis studies, all published in the past three years.

The researchers concluded that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the more likely your risk of suffering from 32 negative health outcomes. Those associated outcomes included...

  • A 48% higher risk of anxiety
  • A 40% higher risk of Type 2 diabetes
  • A 21% higher risk of all-cause mortality
  • A 55% higher risk of obesity
  • A 41% higher risk of poor sleep
  • A 22% higher risk of depression
  • A 50% higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease

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It's important to remember that this kind of observational study doesn't show a true cause-and-effect relationship, which the researchers acknowledged. And, of course, it would be unethical if researchers gather a huge number of folks for a clinical trial, load them up on junk food for years, and see what happens. Still, the sheer number of participants in the study means the findings shouldn't be ignored.

A controlled, clinical trial does exist, though, albeit a small one. And it showed, plain and simple, that these highly processed foods make us fatter...

Published in a 2019 issue of Cell Metabolism, 20 folks in their early 30s took a four-week-long vacation... at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

There, the participants were randomly assigned to two groups. One group ate ultra-processed foods for the first two weeks before switching to two weeks of unprocessed foods. The other group was the opposite – an unprocessed diet for the first two weeks followed by an ultra-processed one.

The researchers tried to match the nutritional composition of the two diets as much as possible. And the participants had the freedom of being able to eat as much as they wanted. (You can check out photos of their meals here if you're curious.)

Researchers found that, on average, folks ate more calories, carbs, and fat during the ultra-processed diet and gained about 2 pounds. On the flip side, during the unprocessed-foods diet, folks dropped an average of 2 pounds. Their blood tests showed lower signs of inflammation. Plus, the participants ate 500 more calories per day of ultra-processed foods than they did on the unprocessed diet.

But not all villains are created equal. Among the label of "ultra-processed foods," healthier options do exist... A May BMJ study found that eating lots of the unhealthier ultra-processed foods could bump up your risk of early death.

For this study, researchers used data spanning more than 30 years and from 100,000-plus nurses and health professionals to determine that noshing on those prepackaged foods was linked to a 4% higher risk of all-cause mortality and an 8% higher risk of dying due to a neurodegenerative disease (like Alzheimer's disease).

The unhealthy gang of ultra-processed foods primarily consisted of ones with processed meats, as well as sugary drinks and artificially sweetened drinks.

If you're finding that most of your meals and snacks consist of processed foods, try substituting them for healthier options as often as possible. Do what I do and...

  • Limit those hot dogs, sausages, and bologna... Instead, get creative and experiment with herbs and spices to add a punch of flavor to whole chicken and turkey breasts. Instead of lunch meats, grab a cooked, whole rotisserie chicken, remove the skin, and hand-shred the pieces. Try adding a dollop of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, along with some diced green onions, celery, and dill. Or skip the dill and add curry powder. You get a chicken salad packed with protein and probiotics that a mayonnaise-based chicken salad wouldn't have.
  • Skip the sodas and fruit juice. All fruit juices – even the 100% fruit ones – have a ton of sugar. Instead, go for water or sparkling water with sliced whole fruits. Some of my favorites include lemons, oranges, and berries. And instead of that morning glass of OJ, grab an orange or a couple of mandarins instead for a sweet boost that's filled with fiber.

The next time you head to the store, skip the foods with labels full of words you can't pronounce. Go for natural, whole foods and you're well on your way to avoiding the ultra-processed junk.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 25, 2024