The Psychology of Eating “Ultra-Processed” Foods

There’s a lot in the press at the moment about how bad processed foods might be for our health.

Food has become ever-more processed over the last few decades as food technologists have learned more about how to extend the shelf-life of foods, reduce production costs and increase palatability.

Alongside these changes, a parallel industry is evolving, alerting us to the possible dangers of eating them.  “Clean Eating” and paleo diets urge us to reject foods that aren’t “real” and return to eating as our ancestors did. The anti-processed-food lobby argues that ingredient labels have got longer and longer and that some mention few if any recognisable foodstuffs.

In turn, there’s already a backlash against this point of view.  In response to the Clean Eating movement, some chefs, writers and scientists are getting angry, because of unscientific and alarmist statements put out about processed foods. And because of the moralistic tone implied in some articles on the subject.

What does ultra-processed mean?

With the recent furore about “ultra-processed” foods, what’s going on?  The first problem you hit when you ask this question is what the term “ultra-processed” means in the first place.  The term has a feel of extremeness about it, though it doesn’t have an official definition. The term has been used in public health publications as part of the NOVA* 4-part categorisation of foods (unprocessed, processed culinary ingredients, processed and ultra-processed). Here, ultra-processed refers to “industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients… Several industrial processes with no domestic equivalents are used in the manufacture of ultra-processed products, such as extrusion and moulding.”
Much of the concern in the press about highly processed foods has been about the physiological effects these foods have on our bodies.

But what’s happening in our brains when we eat highly processed foods?

One of the reasons for processing foods is to make them more palatable and get us to want more.  So the “ultra” processing isn’t just about what we put into our bodies; it’s how much.  Think of those foods that you keep eating, versus those that don’t.

With a simple food like fruit, each successive bite adds to your satisfaction.  Think of your very favourite fruit, and what happens when you eat it.  It gives you pleasure, because it activates the reward system in the brain.  The most delicious fruit I can think of is papaya with lime juice squeezed into it. To me, this tastes fabulous.  But stopping at half a papaya is easy and the other half goes in the fridge for another day.

But give me a family-sized bag of Tesco bacon rashers and it’s an entirely different matter.  Each bite doesn’t reduce my desire for another; it increases it. In fact most of the time as I’m eating one mouthful of crunchy-salty-something, I’m looking forward to the next rather than noticing this one. That’s because the bacon rashers activate the drive system in the brain very effectively.  I buy these for the types of occasions when nibbles are required and other people are going to be around, and because it gives me an excuse. Even so, by the time the party starts, I’ve usually hoovered up half the bag, leaving me slightly nauseous.

So what’s in the savoury snacks that compels us to keep eating?

It’s millions of dollars-worth of research and refinement according to Dr David Kessler’s book “The End of Overeating”. He describes how food technologists develop “hyper-palatable” foods by combining and layering different tastes and textures, which they subject to market research until they find the peak effect of enjoyment (the “bliss point”). And that bliss point has a different effect on the brain than the one you get from eating your very favourite fruit. Hence the difference between the papaya and the bacon rashers.

This isn’t about addiction to bacon rashers; it’s about the drive to keep eating them when you start. The addiction argument is a whole other kettle of fish, for another day. But a food that activates your drive to eat more of it rather than satisfying your desire is potentially a problem.

What to do with the snacks you just can’t stop eating?

The most obvious thing to do with your equivalent of the bacon rashers, is not to have it in your home at all. Maybe only buy it in for a special occasion, and when you do, buy it in the smallest packs you can. We eat less when we eat from smaller packs. And in the unlikely event that there’s any left after the occasion, close the pack of whatever’s left and hide it from view. We are more likely to eat something we can see, because it activates our appetite system when we happen to catch sight of it, whereas something hidden away is easier to keep out of mind. If you can’t ignore what you are trying not to eat, the best answer may be to give it away if it’s unopened, or throw it in the bin if it’s already open.

What about the argument that no-one should tell us what to eat or drink?

In 2013 mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of fizzy drinks over 16 ounces in size in New York City, but was overruled by the court. Kessler’s book made me see that when people complained about Bloomberg’s interference in their free choice, they’d been hoodwinked into thinking that choosing to buy a 20 ounce cup of coke is a free choice. Not entirely. If you want to drink a pint of soda, it’s because your brain has been manipulated away from its natural homeostatic (self-regulating) control. Just like my brain has been nudged towards eating 75g of bacon rashers rather than the pack’s recommended serving of 25g.

My concern about highly processed foods may become more about whether the ingredients themselves are bad for me. But right now it’s the out-of-control and unable-to-stop consumption that bothers me most.

I’m off to photograph the bacon rashers I bought to illustrate this article now. Which will mean opening the bag. Wish me luck!

* Here’s a link to an article on NOVA by the people who developed the classification in World Nutrition Volume 7

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