Lost in the Process

Text Mangai Balasegaram

Asian Geographic - - Culture -


Cook­ies. Snacks. Sweets. In­stant noo­dles. Potato chips. Car­bon­ated drinks. Packet drinks. Spongy snack cakes. Crunchy savoury bites. Pro­cessed foods are in­creas­ingly part of the diet in Asia, fill­ing the shelves of con­ve­nience stores and 7-Elevens, es­pe­cially in ur­ban neigh­bour­hoods.

These foods are of­ten cheaper to pro­duce and pur­chase and are ex­tremely con­ve­nient: They are ready-to-eat (or ready-to-heat) and re­main “fresh” for days, weeks or months, be­cause they have barely any fresh in­gre­di­ents.

These long-life highly pro­cessed prod­ucts, which are ag­gres­sively mar­keted by transna­tional com­pa­nies, are in­creas­ingly dis­plac­ing tra­di­tional foods and di­etary pat­terns. For Pro­fes­sor Car­los Mon­teiro from the Uni­ver­sity of São Paulo, this is the cur­rent “big is­sue” in pub­lic health nu­tri­tion which is driv­ing the obe­sity epi­demic and chronic dis­eases. He be­lieves this trend also un­der­mines cul­ture, meals, fam­ily and com­mu­nity life, and threat­ens lo­cal busi­nesses.

His re­search shows that cut­ting down on pro­cessed foods re­duces sugar in­take, and thereby obe­sity and chronic dis­eases. One study pub­lished by BMJOPEN found that nearly 60 per­cent of an Amer­i­can’s daily calo­ries and 90 per­cent of added sugar in­take came from “ul­tra-pro­cessed foods”, but veg­eta­bles con­sti­tuted only one per­cent of calo­ries.

In Asia, stud­ies also show pro­cessed foods are “sig­nif­i­cant sugar, salt and fat vec­tors” – and this rises with in­come level.

Food has never been so pro­cessed be­fore. Most foods, even in ru­ral Asia, have un­der­gone some pro­cess­ing. Rice, for ex­am­ple, is pol­ished white. Mon­teiro dis­tin­guishes be­tween the ex­tent of pro­cess­ing. Some foods are “min­i­mally pro­cessed”, such as pre-washed salad or waxed ap­ples. At the other end of the spec­trum are what he calls “ul­tra­pro­cessed” foods. These are of­ten for­mu­lated with re­fined starches, or cheap ex­tracts of real foods, as well as syn­thetic ad­di­tives. While they may look and taste good, they are es­sen­tially “fake” foods.

In his best­selling book, Salt,sugar,fat:how the­food­giantshooke­dus, Michael Moss doc­u­ments how the food industry metic­u­lously de­signs “crave-able” foods with the right “bliss point” of sugar, fat or salt. Moss ar­gues that sugar is ad­dic­tive, us­ing the same neu­ro­log­i­cal path­ways as nar­cotics. It is the “metham­phetamine” of in­gre­di­ents that makes a “high-speed, blunt as­sault on our brains”. High fruc­tose corn syrup is now ubiq­ui­tously used by the food industry; it is cheaper, sweeter and eas­ier to use than reg­u­lar sugar.

Pro­cess­ing meth­ods are ex­ten­sive. Foods may be pounded, pulped, ground, pow­dered or coated. Take boxed dry ce­re­als, for ex­am­ple. The in­gre­di­ents are first mixed in a “slurry”, a muddy mix­ture, then forced by ex­tru­sion to be­come flakes, shreds or loops, and are fi­nally sprayed with oil and sugar. Some ex­perts have ar­gued that the ex­tru­sion process – which uses high heat and pres­sure – de­stroys most nu­tri­ents, even the syn­thetic vi­ta­mins. Gen­er­ally, pro­cess­ing foods di­min­ishes mi­cronu­tri­ents.

It is the “metham­phetamine” of in­gre­di­ents that makes a “high-speed, blunt as­sault on our brains”

Trade lib­er­al­i­sa­tion has helped eco­nomic growth, but is al­low­ing transna­tional cor­po­ra­tions – which are tar­get­ing Asia’s large, young and grow­ing pop­u­la­tions – to eas­ily pen­e­trate mar­kets. “Reg­u­la­tions” may sim­ply be non-bind­ing WHO rec­om­men­da­tions.

Food sys­tems in Asia’s mid­dle-in­come coun­tries are now chang­ing rapidly, along­side ris­ing sales of ul­tra-pro­cessed foods and fast foods, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Philip Baker, from the School of Reg­u­la­tion and Global Gov­er­nance at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity. Of this, the lead­ing prod­uct – and prob­a­bly the most harm­ful – were car­bon­ated soft drinks, which had the high­est sales in Thai­land and the Philip­pines. To ex­pand sales, transna­tional man­u­fac­tur­ers have a “glo­cal­i­sa­tion” strat­egy to adapt to lo­cal cul­tures, Baker’s study on food sys­tems trans­for­ma­tion shows.

Brazil, and re­gion­ally, South Korea, as good ex­am­ples of this. Some govern­ment reg­u­la­tions are needed, such as re­strict­ing ad­ver­tis­ing, im­prov­ing food la­belling, hav­ing sub­si­dies on health foods and tax­ing sug­ary drinks, he says.

Of con­cern is mass me­dia food ad­ver­tis­ing to chil­dren, which is re­port­edly ex­ten­sive, par­tic­u­larly in In­dia, Malaysia and the Philip­pines. “The nu­tri­tion of chil­dren is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant as this can and does have life-long con­se­quences,” Baker says.

Brazil in­cludes an­other thing – plea­sure. Eat and prepare meals with oth­ers, the guide­lines state, for “priv­i­leged times of con­vivi­al­ity and plea­sure”. ag

Steam­ing and fermenting rice and black gram (with some sour but­ter milk in idli)

Po­ten­tial health ben­e­fits:

A meal con­sist­ing of a burger, fries, sauces, chicken nuggets and Coca Cola. Fast­food chains – such as Mc­don­ald’s – have been try­ing to improve their pub­lic im­age as peo­ple be­come aware of the ef­fects of eat­ing pro­cessed foods

Be­low In­stant noo­dles are highly pro­cessed: They are high in fat, calo­ries and sodium, and are laced with arti cial colour­ing, preser­va­tives, ad­di­tives and flavour­ings right Hy­drol­ysed wheat and hy­drol­ysed milk are used in pro­cessed chips

Above Dunkin’ Donuts re­moved ti­ta­nium diox­ide (which also ap­pears in sun­screen, tooth­paste and paints) from its pow­dered sugar; it is used to keep pro­cessed foods look­ing fresh. The com­pany says it will re­move arti cial colours by the end of 2018

Be­low Preser­va­tives such as as­par­tame (an arti cial sweet­erner re­plac­ing sugar) are used in diet soda drinks. As­par­tame has been linked to al­ler­gies, pre­ma­ture birth, liver dam­age and can­cer

Above Frozen TV din­ners are loaded with fat, sodium, and empty calo­ries. They’re more con­ve­nient, but have con­trib­uted to the global obe­sity epi­demic right The In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Can­cer (IARC) has clas­si­fied pro­cessed meat as a car­cinoge

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