‘Ultra-processed foods are foreign to the body and food goes down to the last cell’

‘Ultra-processed foods are foreign to the body and food goes down to the last cell’
‘Ultra-processed foods are foreign to the body and food goes down to the last cell’

If today the world observes the attractive and palatable packages of biscuits, instant noodles and frozen lasagnas with the understanding that excessive consumption can cause harm to health, you can be sure that this seed was planted by the Brazilian researcher Carlos Monteiro.

In the last 15 years, since he led the group that coined the term “ultra-processed” for these products, Monteiro has promoted a revolution in studies on the subject, becoming an international reference, and established a perspective that places the food of the future not as the most practical, but like the one most similar to food in its natural form, which expresses traditions, cultures, uses local products and which brings a peculiarity that differentiates human beings from other animals: knowing how to cook.

Recently titled professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo (USP), he recently signed an editorial in the renowned scientific journal British Medical Journal (BMJ) about the study that evaluated data from 10 million people and pointed out a direct link between the consumption of this type of processed food and the increased risk of 32 diseases, ranging from cardiovascular problems to cancer and mental disorders. It couldn’t have been more direct: “Ultra-processed foods harm health and shorten life”.

In an exclusive interview with LOOK, the researcher talked about the transition from his studies on malnutrition to research on obesity, the ten years of the Food Guide for the Brazilian Population, his friendship with presenter Rita Lobo and his opinion on new treatments against obesity, such as Wegovy and Mounjaro. Read the main excerpts.

His career in research began with investigations into malnutrition. How did the transition to studies on obesity occur?
Since the beginning, in the 1990s, the main line of research at Nupens (Nucleus for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health) was monitoring the nutrition and health conditions of the Brazilian population. We started supporting national surveys from the Ministry of Health and IBGE to identify nutritional status and, in our projects, we identified a drop in malnutrition. In 1996, for example, 22% of people were malnourished in the Northeast. In 2006, it was 10%. We studied the factors and there was an increase in girls’ education, which was reflected in mothers’ education, a reduction in absolute poverty, and improved sanitation. In the 2000s, we began to see an increase in obesity and we also monitored Brazilians’ diet through purchasing surveys. People were increasingly buying less oil, sugar, salt and less rice and beans. We started looking at people’s food baskets and saw that there was a replacement for the category of ready-to-eat products: sugary drinks, soft drinks, juices and soft drinks, biscuits, sausages, instant noodles, lasagnas, sliced ​​bread. Although they were different products, they were used to replace milk, vegetables and fruits. It was an explanation for the increase in obesity.

How did the idea of ​​ultra-processed foods develop? We created a new classification to differentiate it from processed food, which is common and we have eaten for centuries, such as bread and cheese. These are things that, in reality, we buy from industry, but we can make them at home with flour, water and yeast, in the case of bread. Ultra-processed foods require industrial ingredients, equipment and techniques that cannot be reproduced at home. These are products that we cannot identify the origin of, because the food is so processed that it has no relationship with the original food.

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And where did the name ultra-processed come from?
It was a collective creation. When we first published the rankings in 2009, English-speaking colleagues thought the idea was interesting, but said we needed to change the name because “ultra” was a good thing. People understand that processing is always good, because you win when it is simple, milk can be transformed into cheese. But, in our theory, processing is not always best. Maybe I was skeptical when people didn’t like it, but it exceeded our expectations. If you search for scientific articles citing the term, in 2009, there was ours. Now there are 500 to 600 a year worldwide.

Why are they so bad for your health?
Ultra-processed foods contain substances that are foreign to the body, affecting the pancreas, kidneys and microbiome, because everything we ingest travels throughout the body. Basically, food is something that goes to the last of our cells. The consumption of ultra-processed foods affects all systems in our body and studies show that it is invariably associated not only with obesity, but with several chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, strokes and depression. It is difficult to find such a large number of studies in history showing such a consistent relationship. Studies show that, in practically all countries in the world, the switch from traditional to ultra-processed food is very large and this is a factor that causes diseases.

The Food Guide for the Brazilian Population is completing ten years in 2024. How can we ensure that its precepts are incorporated into the diet of our population? In other words, how can we get Brazilians to return to rice and beans?
The Guide shows that a healthy diet must include cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes and eggs. Some countries have started to tax ultra-processed foods, and Brazil is discussing tax reform. But we have a David and Goliath fight with the industry, which has the potential to anticipate policies and not have guides, labeling, or new taxes. They are transnational corporations and the revenue of these companies is greater than that of some countries. Nobody is talking about prohibition, but about greater regulation of the category and policies that make consumption less and less interesting.

You have popularized the discussion about healthy eating not only in the Guide, but also in work with chef and presenter Rita Lobo, including in her books. How did this friendship come about?
The Ministry of Health commissioned the work on the Guide and, when we reached the third chapter, we had to guide people to adopt healthy foods in their culinary preparation. At that time, I had never heard of her, but several people in the group were talking about her program. I had access to her first book, “Panelinha: recipes that work” and we used it as a reference. Time passed and the (american writer) Michael Pollan He came to Brazil for Flip, in Paraty, and I invited him for lunch. I called Rita and we started work that never stopped.

Carlos Monteiro with chef and presenter Rita Lobo (USP/Disclosure)

And what is your relationship with the kitchen like?
Because of work, I don’t usually have much time to cook, but I can say that the entire group that worked on the project in 2009 was already eating healthily and the appreciation of cooking only started to make sense after the study, because the Food preparation is very noble and important for humanity. We started to have this as our trait: preparing food and discovering how people and other cultures solve certain food preparation dilemmas.

We are following the profusion of new treatments against obesity, such as Wegovy and Mounjaro, what is your opinion on these alternatives?
What caused this obesity pandemic was a radical change in our diet caused by ultra-processing, which has additives, unknown compounds and is unbalanced in terms of nutrients. One of the issues with ultra-processed foods is that they are hyperpalatable and not satiating. Modern medicines work on satiety hormones and make people lose the pleasure of consuming food. We know what is happening and the natural way would be to stop, but some people think it is impossible, that it is part of modern life and they think they have to find another solution.

The article is in Portuguese

Tags: Ultraprocessed foods foreign body food cell



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