I lived without ultra-processed food for a week. This is what I learned

II spent 15 minutes standing in the dairy aisle of my local grocery store studying the nutrition labels on the back of various soy, almond, and oat milk containers when I decided: maybe not this week. I’ve been reporting on ultra-processed foods for the past four months and wanted to see if it would be possible to go even a week without them.

The problem is that I can’t find dairy-free milk that meets the requirements. The soy creamer I’ve been using to make my morning cups of tea for almost a decade is packed with ingredients that I now recognize as markers of an ultra-processed product: maltodextrin, soy lecithin and locust bean gum. There are alternatives with fewer ingredients, but I’m not sure they meet the rules I’m trying to adhere to. So I sheepishly put my trusty soy creamer in my basket and kick the can away for another week.

It’s three (okay, six) weeks later when I finally commit to ultra-processed food-free week. For seven days I will abstain from industrially formulated products that are high in fats, starches, sugars and additives (such as flavourings, colorings and preservatives) – that means no chips or chocolates, but also no packaged bread, yoghurt with added fruit or granola bars.

As I wander the aisles, I select ingredients for a fish, couscous and vegetable stew; a quiche; and sandwiches (I’m lucky enough to only cook for one). Crushed tomatoes are fine, but not prepared tomato spread; Pie crust is okay if I make it from scratch, but not if I buy it ready-made. Then I stock up on snacks: apples and cheddar cheese, hummus and pita bread (many brands do not meet the standard), peas and mangoes.

I want a few treats so that this week feels like fun, not punishment, and while the fresh fruit is a huge treat in my book, I also hit the ice cream aisle. Unsurprisingly, most of the brands I would normally buy are ultra-processed: filled with emulsifiers, thickeners, and flavorings. There’s a growing selection that isn’t, though they cost a not-insignificant $2 to $3 more per pint. That’s my first takeaway: Buying whole ingredients and less processed foods isn’t cheap – and with rising food prices, it’s virtually impossible for many families.

But as I bring my groceries home, I’m eager to start cooking.

Reporting on ultra-processed foods has taken on a personal touch for me over the past year. According to the American Cancer Society, people born in 1990 – who will turn 34 this year – have double the risk of colon cancer and a fourfold increase in the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950. These young adults are more likely to develop cancer. diagnosed with more advanced cases when their cancer is discovered. No one knows for sure why these cancer rates are increasing in younger patients – a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, alcohol consumption and an ultra-processed diet may all be culprits – but scientists agree that the trend is concerning enough to recommend that screenings begin at 45- years old. of the long-cherished age of 50.

Despite having no immediate family history of colon cancer or symptoms, I had my first precancerous colon polyp removed at the age of 28. To be sure, I come back for screenings every five years – but in the meantime I wondered: how could I live my life differently to prevent even more? Should I stop drinking? Walking every day? Give up all ultra-processed foods? I suspect I’m not the only young adult struggling with these rapidly rising cancer rates and wondering how much the rise of ultra-processed foods since the 1980s is to blame.

At home, I hide all my ultra-processed snacks—chocolate-covered almonds, lemon slices, chips, and granola—so I don’t accidentally chew them. But most of all, I’m afraid I’ll end up outside the home: Since the pandemic made my job completely remote, I’ve turned to working in coffee shops more than ever as an excuse to get out of the house. To give up eating out completely would require a radical change in the way I spend time with others—a challenge I’m not necessarily against, but one that may require more planning than I’ve done this week.

As I report more on UPFs, I’m concerned about two things. Lately, I’ve stopped thinking about UPFs as food at all. Scientists will call these “food products” instead, as a reminder that they are not so much food, but products extracted from food – fats, starches and added sugars – and additives.

Of all the definitions, I find Wikipedia’s most concerning: “Ultra-processed food is an industrially formulated edible substance.” That definition gets to the heart of the other problem that concerns me: companies making ultra-processed foods to be hyper-palatable (companies overseen by former tobacco company executives). produce the tastiest food). I’m frustrated by the health consequences of ultra-processed foods, not because I think people are making bad decisions by choosing to eat them, but because I suspect that companies don’t care how their products affect consumers.

Mid-week, as I prepare a PB&J sandwich (made with locally packaged jam, processed – but not ultra-processed – peanuts, and bread from a nearby bakery), I think about how grateful I am that I’m only feeding myself. The handful of meals I have time to cook from scratch easily extend throughout the week. That wouldn’t be enough to feed many of my friends and family with children.

For many families in my life, it’s not just the cost of whole foods that drives them to purchase UPFs, but also the convenience. A box of macaroni and cheese, takeout from a fast-food restaurant, prepackaged cookies, crackers, yogurt and sandwiches – they make it possible for dozens of working mothers I know to feed picky children. I’m reminded of a passing comment a nutritionist made when we were talking about ultra-processed foods: Not enough is said about the domestic labor it would take, most likely from women, to move away from them.

Infectious disease doctor Chris van Tulleken describes in his book Ultra-Processed People how terrible he felt after a month of eating only ultra-processed food. I don’t know if I feel any noticeable difference after a week of eating without UPFs – but maybe it takes longer for me to feel a positive difference than a negative difference. Or maybe I’m lucky enough to start from a place where I don’t eat a lot of UPFs to begin with. Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll continue living a UPF-free lifestyle forever, like Van Tulleken did. I’m happy that I can add my own fruit and honey to Greek yogurt and use fewer chips, but I’m also very grateful for certain products, especially those plant-based milks, especially when I think about the environmental impact of conventional dairy products.

But I do take the time to browse Northeastern University’s UPF database, TrueFood, a handy tool that I found invaluable when looking up most supermarket products during the week. While all plant-based milks are technically ultra-processed, there are many that are just as much less processed in the website’s scoring system.

When I go to the supermarket next week, I’ll take one with me.

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