Look at a Greek salad for long enough, and there’s a good chance that your mouth will start watering.
We have evolved alongside real foods and we naturally respond to them. We have all the digestive enzymes and absorption capacity required to digest and use the nutrition contained in real foods.
Real food comes from nature and may have undergone traditional preparation processes, like salting, drying, fermenting, marinating, cooking, toasting, and so on. Our saliva, microbiota (gut bacteria), other digestive enzymes, and the body’s bio-chemisty works in alignment with real foods. We have a certain harmony with with real foods (except in the case of allergy and intolerance, but that’s another discussion).
On the other hand “food-like-products” are those foods produced by the food industry to toy with our taste buds.
These foods contain a wide array of chemicals that aren’t actually food. They are, however, edible and generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in the small amounts used. These products are also packed with high amounts of fat and sugar. Real foods never have these two macro nutrients together in large quantities. This fat and sugar combination means processed and ultra processed foods can deliver high amounts of caloric energy, yet their nutritional qualities are lacking. This high energy low nutrient value, leaves us undernourished, hungry, then going back for more.
These creations taste incredible. Taste is one sales device that keep us going back for more.
In addition, multi-million dollar marketing budgets carve out a place for “food-like-products” in our minds. These regular messages help to normalise these as food, and suddenly our daily diets are riddled with them.
From there it’s easy to be confused about what “real” is
Individual Health Impacts
In 2014-15 The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showed us that 63% of Australians aged 18 years and over are overweight or obese. Meanwhile, in the USA Obesity rates have nearly tripled in the last 50 years (Longo 2016). This is not about how someone looks or even what their body mass index (BMI) is, but rather about the health of the body and mind’s internal function. Obesity and overweight are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2, hypertension, sleep apnea, psychological issues, musculo-skeletal issues and some cancers (AIWH).
During human evolution there were many variations in food supply due to seasonal fluctuations which influenced eating behaviors and energy metabolism. Today, particularly processed and ultra processed foods can be accessed 24/7. Real food is generally not quite as convenient.
Eating ‘food-like products’ triggers reward pathways that real food cannot mimic. Many processed foods trigger a surge of dopamine that sets up addiction patterns. We can’t help but go back for more. And more.
All of this leaves us under nourished and over eating.
Planetary Health Impacts
High fat high sugar foods mean high energy low nutrition, leading to poor health and excess weight. We know that obesity rates are increasing in every region of the world, despite efforts to reduce them. Prof Boyd Swinburn and colleagues released a Lancet Commission report called The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Under Nutrition and Climate Change in 2019. It’s a broad approach to these three issues which considers the systemic and institutional drivers perpetuating and interlacing them. These include (not surprisingly) poor political leadership and strong pressure from commercial interests which keep perpetuating destructive cycles.
What’s more, ingredients in many ‘food-like products’ contribute to environmental destruction, none more that palm oil. Palm oil plantations decimate forests throughout the world, contributing significantly to species extinction, soil erosion and carbon emissions. Here’s a good overview of the issues Palm oil creates from World Wildlife Fund.
Worse still, you might well be consuming palm oil without your knowledge, as it is can be labeled as ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable shortening’. There are calls to shift this labeling for greater transparency. Until then, your could just eat real food!