Curious Cook: A thin line

Ultra-processed foods are foods like soft drinks, candy, chocolate, commercial chicken nuggets and French fries. — TYSOM/Unsplash

It was disappointing to read about the health warnings now suggested for a very common sweetener found in many foods and drinks. Its ability to tolerate heat also means it is present in many baked products and it is practically certain you would have eaten some sucralose by now.

Although invented in 1976, sucralose was not mass marketed until 1998 when it was approved for human consumption by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). In 1999, the FDA extended its approval of sucralose to allow its use as a “general purpose sweetener”, and therefore permitted in all types of foods and drinks.

It was therefore somewhat incredible to read an American June 2023 study which confirmed that a metabolite (a compound created during digestion) of sucralose is genotoxic, meaning that it can deform and/or destroy DNA in cells.

This is after a French NutriNet-Sante study in 2021 which found other artificial sweeteners were linked to higher incidences of various cancers (around 13% higher than the norm), though the causative mechanisms were not wholly understood in detail.

With sucralose, the recent study found that sucralose-6-acetate (a metabolite of sucralose) is clearly genotoxic after advanced testing and screening of the compound. The type of genotoxicity is classified as clastogenic which means it causes breakages of DNA strands, with serious negative outcomes to the affected cells.

Additionally, sucralose-6-acetate is often present in sucralose itself as an impurity. This means that a single drink flavoured with sucralose can exceed the EU Food Safety Authority’s maximum threshold of 0.15 micrograms of genotoxic substances per person per day, and note that is before sucralose-6-acetate is metabolized by the body during digestion of sucralose.

In the UK, more than 50% of the population’s daily calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods, like cold cuts. — VLAD MELNIKOV/UnsplashIn the UK, more than 50% of the population’s daily calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods, like cold cuts. — VLAD MELNIKOV/Unsplash

It is somewhat implausible the entire food industry did not know about the genotoxic nature of sucralose-6-acetate before this year, and even now, the only impact is probably more lobbying by food producers to retain the “general purpose sweetener” status for sucralose at the FDA.

Another sobering fact is many studies have established that sweeteners are also associated with significant negative impacts on the human gut microbiome, with knock-on effects on the immune system and the ability to manage inflammation within human bodies. Artificial sweeteners are also linked to “leaky gut syndrome”, where toxins and bacteria from the gut can cross over from the intestines into the bloodstream due to damage caused to intestinal walls.

Perhaps the most known effect of artificial sweeteners is that their perceived sweetness provokes the body’s normal reaction to real sugars (e.g., increased insulin production). However, when the digestive tract cannot find the expected sugars to process, it then causes the body to feverishly hunt for more carbohydrates to replace the missing sugar.

That is why artificial sweeteners are not considered an optimal route for losing weight – the body will just be induced to consume more food in search of the missing calories it expects.

Humans need processed foods

Humans have one of the shortest digestive tracts of all mammals, along with other limitations such as tiny teeth and small, weak jaws for our body size. Paradoxically, despite these limitations, humans spend much less time ingesting and digesting food compared to other primates.

The main reason for the food digestive efficiency of humans is that we are obliged to process much of what we eat before actually consuming it. Apart from salads, nuts, fruits and perhaps some raw seafood or meat, most of the foods eaten by humans are cooked before ingestion. Humans also process foods by curing, drying, smoking, pickling and fermenting.

The various means of cooking and preserving food reduce very significantly the risks of poisoning, parasites and diseases and has the huge additional benefit of making food much easier to digest. Hence, normal food processing outside the body is not an issue with humans as we have evolved to require it. The easy digestibility of our food means we get more calories more efficiently, and this extra energy allowed us to evolve bigger brains and become more productive in activities other than gathering food.

Humans do not need ultra-processed foods

The issue with sucralose and other sweeteners is the use of such compounds will turn normal, healthy foods into an entirely new category of food, called Ultra-Processed Food (UPF). UPFs are a confusing category as there are several definitions. For example, one of the most widely-used definitions is based on the NOVA system, which lists four categories as follows:

• NOVA-1 are “unprocessed or minimally processed foods,” namely the edible parts of plants or animals taken straight from nature and have been minimally modified/preserved;

• NOVA-2 defines “culinary ingredients,” such as salt, oil, sugar, or starch, which are derived or produced from NOVA1 foods;

• NOVA-3 encompass “processed foods,” such as breads, tinned vegetables, or cured meats, which are created by combining NOVA1 and NOVA2 foods; and

• NOVA-4 contains “Ultra-Processed Foods,” such as industrially formulated products which are made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods, additives, and synthetic compounds with little if any intact NOVA-1 food.

The issue I have with the NOVA-4 category is the wording: “made mostly or entirely from substances”, which may be ambiguous if an item contains only a relatively small amount of synthetic additives. And in fact, a 2022 study into the use of NOVA suggested that “current NOVA criteria do not allow for robust and functional food assignments”.Hence, my suggestion for an alternative definition of UPF is: “Any item declared as ‘food’ which contains any substance which negatively impacts the nutritional value of the base raw ingredients.”

Humans have one of the shortest digestive tracts of all mammals, which is why food typically needs to be cooked before being eaten. — CLEM ONOJEGHUO/UnsplashHumans have one of the shortest digestive tracts of all mammals, which is why food typically needs to be cooked before being eaten. — CLEM ONOJEGHUO/Unsplash

That way, the definition of a UPF would be relatively straightforward and clear-cut.

The thin line

From the above UPF definition, one can see many modern foods can be classified (or re-classified) as UPFs. It is a thin line to cross as the inclusion of, for example, a preservative such as sodium nitrite can reduce the healthfulness of a food even while reducing spoilage and extending shelf life.

This is an important point because several scientists have stated that UPFs are not actually food at all. The reason is the historical purpose of food has been about the nourishment of our bodies, our families, our friends and the community. In that context, what would be the purpose of eating and/or serving modern industrially-produced food which is potentially or actually detrimental to health?

To be precise, eating the occasional UPF is not likely to cause any problems. However, it is also scientifically established that high levels of UPF consumption can eventually lead to metabolic diseases of some nature for many humans.

And yet humans eat a lot of UPFs. In the UK, some 57% of the population’s daily calories come from UPFs, with younger and poorer people often obtaining over 80% of their calories from UPFs, in some cases even 100%. The status is worse in the USA and other countries.

There are some reasons for this.

Firstly, UPFs are industrially-produced goods, where profitability depends on using the cheapest possible ingredients while encouraging as much consumption as possible. Hence, UPFs are often based on refined ingredients with unnaturally small particle sizes (which produce consistent results in industrial processors but are very energy-dense), mingled with texture enhancers and synthetic flavourings (which have more pronounced flavours than the real foods they emulate). And they are usually cheap because they are designed to be cheaply produced.

Secondly, UPFs are professionally designed to be extremely attractive to eat, with the right visual presentation and mouth-feel characteristics. This hyper palatability encourages people to eat them quickly and in larger quantities than real food. The hyper palatability aspect also means people do not tend to investigate the UPFs they are eating, possibly because they are enjoying it so much. In fact, many people are addicted to UPFs, usually due to the ingredients in them.

In the UK, younger and poorer people obtain 80% of their caloric intake from ultra-processed foods. — CHITOKAN/PexelsIn the UK, younger and poorer people obtain 80% of their caloric intake from ultra-processed foods. — CHITOKAN/Pexels

Thirdly, there is a UPF alternative for practically any real food you can think of. So the range of UPF choices always exceeds real food options as they are not reliant on crop seasons. In some USA supermarkets, over 90% of the stocked items are UPFs, so their customers do not have much of a choice anyway.

The recent news about sucralose highlights another worrying aspect of UPFs. Food manufacturers do not appear to know (or care) about the health impact of much of the industrially-produced foodstuffs that they sell. Or if they do, they have not been forthcoming about the risks.

As such, it may be that billions of humans are unknowingly participating in a global experiment. Huge populations of humans are ingesting vast amounts of various compounds in UPFs with indeterminate deleterious effects on their health.

A French study involving 104,980 subjects in 2018 found that every 10% increase in the calories from UPFs in human diets resulted in an over 10% increase in the incidence of cancers within nine years. It is plausible the current metabolic syndrome pandemic may also have its roots in UPFs.

More and more studies are indicating that human bodies are poorly equipped to deal with many synthetic foods (eg, hydrogenated fats, artificial sweeteners, etc) probably because these modern foods do not exist in nature and humans have not evolved to fully tolerate such foods.

The risks, therefore, rest solely with the consumers rather than the producers of UPFs.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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