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Do you know how to recognize an ultra-processed food?

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School, work and all other activities have resumed. The never-ending cycle of having to make lunches and dinners is back. And it comes around fast! As you know, healthy eating is the foundation for good health.

However, with everything that needs to get done, taking shortcuts is sometimes tempting. And it is so easy to go for these tasty, appealing, ready-to-eat, quickly made, easy to warm up foods that are available at grocery or convenience stores and restaurants: ultra-processed foods1.

Here are valuable information and useful strategies to help you better recognize processed foods and make wholesome food choices as often as possible.

Ultra-Processed Foods: Red Flag!

  • Nearly 50% of the daily calorie intake. According to a 20152 study, this percentage represents the consumption of ultra-processed foods in the general Canadian population. For young people aged 9 to 13, it’s almost 60%!
  • Health risks. According to a research published in 20193, people who have a diet high in ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of suffering from obesity (over 31%), having diabetes (more than 37%) and high blood pressure (over 60%) than the general population; all of which are risk factors for heart disease and strokes.
  • Less nutritious. Compared to foods that are not ultra-processed, they contain less protein and fibre, more calories, carbohydrates, free sugars and salt, less minerals such as zinc, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins such as A, C, D, B6 and B12, as well as less niacin (B3) and riboflavin (B2).
  • The long list of ingredients often represents a good indication that it is an ultra-processed food
    – few natural products listed, often not at all;
    – large amounts of sugar, oils, fats and salt;
    – presence of stabilizers or preservatives;
    – Host of additives which are only found in ultra-processed foods: hydrogenated oils, hydrolyzed proteins, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dyes, flavour enhancers, sweeteners, carbonating agents for water or carbonated soft drinks, etc.
    – Ultra-processed foods and beverages;
    – spreads, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, fruit yogurts;
    – breads, muffins, cookies, cakes and industrial cake mix;
    – sausages, hamburgers, hotdogs and other reconstituted meat products, such as Bologna sausage;
    – soups, noodles and packaged sauces;
    – beef or chicken broth cubes;
    – pâtés, pasta, pizza, chicken nuggets and fish sticks;
    – soft drinks, fruit drinks, packaged sweet or salty snacks, ice cream, candy.

What does “wholesome eating” mean? Some basic rules

  • Choose natural or lightly processed foods: Green Light!
    – fresh, squeezed, cooled, frozen or dried fruits and vegetables;
    – cereals: brown, parboiled or white rice, corn on the cob or kernels, wheat grains or cereals;
    – legumes: various beans and peas, lentils, etc.;
    – fresh or dried mushrooms;
    – meat, poultry, fish and seafood: whole or cut, cooled or frozen;
    – eggs;
    – milk, pasteurized or powdered;
    – plain yogurt?with no added sugar or sweetener;
    – vegetable or fruit juice, fresh or pasteurized with no added sugar or artificial flavours;
    – oatmeal, corn flakes or flour, wheat, oats;
    – nuts, peanuts and other oilseeds with no added salt or sugar;
    – spices;
    – fresh or dried herbs;
    – tea, coffee, water.
  • Processed Culinary Ingredients: to be consumed in small amounts
    What are they? Processed culinary ingredients are made from natural foods that have been pressed, refined, crushed, etc. They add flavour to your preparations made from natural or lightly processed foods.
    – salt;
    – sugar and molasses;
    – honey;
    – maple syrup;
    – olive oil;
    – butter;
    – lard.
  • Processed Foods: limit your consumption
    What are they? For the most part, processed foods contain 2 or 3 ingredients. They are made from natural, lightly processed foods to which have been added sugar, oil, salt and other processed culinary ingredients. Add them to your recipes or as a side dish to your meal.
    – cheese;
    – artisan bread;
    – canned fruits, vegetables and legumes;
    – salted or sweetened nuts and seeds;
    – salted, cured or smoked meats;
    – canned fish.

Strategies to eat wholesome more often

  • Cook! Learn to cook and share your skills. Read recipe books or look for new recipes on the Internet. Share recipes with your family, friends and colleagues. Talk about cooking with your peers and learn new tips. You can also take international cooking lessons and add something exotic to your plate. In short, have fun in the kitchen!
  • Plan time in your schedule for food. Plan menus ahead of time. Make a list before going grocery shopping. Involve the entire household in preparing meals. Turn your meals into a special time for sharing and enjoying with your loved ones.
  • Shop where there is a varied supply of natural or lightly processed foods. Visit public markets and supermarkets, or source directly from the producers. Select seasonal local fruits and vegetables. If you can, buy organic. And mostly, read product labels!
  • Find inexpensive restaurants that serve freshly cooked food on site. Plan to go out to the restaurant when you are in a hurry, tired or simply to enjoy yourself! Good choices: self-serve restaurants and cafeterias that offer pay-by-weight meals. Obviously, avoid fast food chains.

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1 According to the NOVA classification, a new approach that classifies foods by the extent of industrial processing: natural or lightly processed, processed ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods. It was developed by a research group from the Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of São Paulo in Brazil, which includes Jean-Claude Moubarac, Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Montreal.
2 Research commissioned by the Heart & Stroke Foundation states that Canadians, adults who are largely eaten, are transformed into ultra-transformed. % of people with obesity, 37% with diabetes and 60% with high blood pressure.
3 Research by Jean-Claude Moubarac, Faculty of Medicine at the Université de Montréal, reveals that 60% of the calories consumed by young children aged 9 to 13 are ultra-transformed.

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