We no longer see plant or animal food as a whole entity. Like Lego pieces, we dismantle foods into isolates, fractionated parts, extracts etc. and put it back together. We have reached a stage where we now know a lot about the chemistry of food. You want modified starches that give frozen foods the perfect freeze-thaw stability? – no problem. You want whey protein powder, but given its fast digesting capability, you want to add casein powder? – no problem! (This would basically be milk, but you are just adjusting the 2 proteins in the milk to your proportions and not what the cow produced naturally.)
All these products let you customize food components to your personal needs. But, is the process of tearing down and building foods the same as eating whole foods? Are we missing anything in the process? Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, let us find out…..
Nutrition: What we know till now:
We count calories, we obsess over the ratios of macronutrients, we gobble up multivitamin tablets.
Yet today, a phenomenon called “hidden hunger” afflicts 2 billion people; where people are calorically well fed, but nutritionally deficient. This is not just in developing countries, but even in nations where fortified foods and large quantities of synthetic vitamin supplements are available. What’s missing?
But first, how did we get here? All things we know now – the knowledge that we take for granted – macronutrients, calories, etc have all been built step-by-step.
First came the discovery of macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats and proteins in 1827 by a British physician, William Prout. He called these the “staminal principles” in the body. Building on that, Francois Magendie, a French physiologist, speculated that these 3 macronutrients – carbohydrates, fat and protein each served different purposes. (Side note – Francois Magendie, by the way, was a horrible scientist who dissected animals live and tortured them in the name of science)
Then came the measurement of calories. In 1844, an American chemist, Dr. Wilbur Atwater, after studying foods for their calories and macronutrient content, established that carbohydrates and proteins yielded 4 calories per gram while fat yielded 9 calories per gram. How impressive is that? But the reductionism attitude had already begun to set. They had not even discovered vitamins at that time. Yet by 1892, a full 130 years ago, Atwater stated in an article in The Chemistry of Foods and Nutrition, “I must talk, not of beef and bread and potatoes, but of protein, carbohydrates and fats.” Justus Von Liebig, a genius, who is thought of as the father of organic chemistry declared that as long as a diet had enough protein and calories, that was enough. Babies fed on Liebig’s formula (made of milk, malted flour, wheat flour and potassium bicarbonate) did not thrive. They were missing several key vitamins and essential fats.
Furthermore, animal experiments with ‘purified diets’ that were supposed to be nutritionally perfect did not go as expected. In 1912, at the University of Wisconsin, cows fed wheat based pure diets were going blind, growing stunted and giving birth to dead cows. Elmer McCollum, American biochemist, added alfalfa leaves to the diets and the health of the cows improved. (To this day, alfalfa feed is considered a key part of cattle diet).
At the same time, a British biochemist named Frederick Gowland Hopkins found stunted growth in rats fed diets of ‘pure nutrients’. However, when he altered the study to add a minute amount of milk – just 1-4% of its diet, it made a dramatic difference to their growth that it could not have been just due to its caloric value alone. Hopkins concluded that “development of the science of dietetics will deal with factors highly complex and at present unknown.” He predicted that “The animal body is adjusted either to live upon plant tissues or the tissues of other animals, and these contain countless substance other than the proteins, carbohydrates and fats.” He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1929 for his important work.
So, we discovered – carbs, fats, proteins, and now vitamins and minerals. All done? Nope – not yet. Around the 1950s, scientists have discovered these bioactive plant nutrients called phytochemicals. Even though we have identified 10,000 phytochemicals – phytosterols, saponins, polyphenols, monoterpenes, phytoestrogens, terpenes, lectins, etc.; scientists believe there are many more left to discover. Phytochemicals are said to work synergistically, so the typical method of isolating them and using them does not work here. For example – A 2004 study found that freeze dried whole tomato powder was more effective than lycopene supplements in reducing prostate cancer growth in rats. Another 2011 study found that fresh broccoli provided 7 times more glucosinolate, an anticancer compound, rather than glucosinolates in capsule form. Eating whole foods matter!
Is there more left to discover in the field of nutrition? You bet…We are still scratching the surface of the gut microbiome. We have to understand the response of impact of different foods on different individuals. Why is childhood obesity levels on the rise? So many questions- need answers and we will get there. It will just take time.
Fractionated Food Parts (Processed food)
So, nutrition wise – so much left to know. But food industry wise – they have to focus on their revenue stream. That is not a defect, it is doing what any industry would do.
Maybe they would prefer to work with whole foods, but there are physical limitations when working with whole foods. The food processing industry prefers working with isolated components. Fats go rancid, fiber is not as malleable as starch, etc. Refined ingredients create less problems when manufacturing on a large scale. For example, it is harder to extrude and mold cereals into attractive geometrical shapes with whole grain flour compared to refined flour.
Isolating nutrients are great way to whitewash terrible products. Sugar powders (like Tang) available with added nutrients (vit C, D, etc) helps them redirect the customers attention to these isolated nutrients and not their terrible base ingredients. Similarly, Coca Cola published a study that looked at the effect of consuming a polyphenol rich drink and its impact on Coronary Artery Disease. Is that surprising to you? Well, Coca Cola owns a range of beverage products, not just Coke and diet Coke – they have vitamin water, smart water, powerade, simply juices, fairlife milk, etc). It would makes sense to them if they can identify the next superfood ingredient and bottle it with their products to give it a health glow.
Moving on to proteins, processed proteins like whey powder, protein bars, etc. are ready to eat and provide a concentrated source of protein. But, the chemical processes required to extract the protein use solvents and chemicals to dissolve and isolate the protein.
Furthermore additives like sweeteners, added flavors, fillers like maltodextrin, oils etc are added to make the taste palatable. The lack of the natural fibers packaged automatically within nature (like lentils and beans, for example) is missing in some ultra-processed protein shakes causing insulin spikes on consumption.
With fats – and refined oils, they put it through processes like degumming, alkali neutralization, bleaching, winterization and deoderization, to increase shelf life. These processes strip the oils of their natural goodness. For example, red palm fruit oil happens to be one of the world’s richest sources of carotenoids, with retinol levels estimated to be 300 times that of a tomato. But the refined palm oil, we all know and hate is a far cry from what it started. Antioxidants in both EVOO, in the form of polyphenols, and lignans (in sesamol, sesamolin, and sesamin) – are stripped away in their refined version.
Finally flavors – there is so much to cover, but here is the short version. We love the smell of many natural foods – let’s say an orange…but that is a volatile aroma to capture. Chemically it is made of hundreds of molecules of esters, alcohols, acids, ketones, aldehydes, etc. Chemists copy these flavors and synthesize them in the lab to bring the manufactured flavor closer and closer to the real deal. But, they get maybe the first 10-20. Often they fall short due to the sheer complexity of nature and the cost associated with increasing ingredients.
In fact, flavor scientists will often tell you they prefer working with artificial flavors. They are ‘clean’, and they don’t have to deal with the messiness of natural flavors.
To be fair, some food scientists and producers do try to incorporate whole foods. Many entrepreneurs pride themselves in providing products such as whole grain muesli, bars made with nuts and dates, wholesome nut butters, etc. But the examples are far fewer than the food giants who slice, dice and mold ingredients to maximize the “bliss point” and fight for “stomach share” of its consumers.
So, my conclusion is not that we should avoid all processed food. Frozen mixed vegetable, canned foods, controlled atmosphere packaging, etc are wonderful products of food tech that advance whole foods. They make many people’s lives easier and live healthier. These are superior, in my opinion, than compound coffee or hydrolyzed protein powders.
There is absolutely a need for tech in the food industry. They have their role to play and make modern world and modern living possible.
Do understand its limitations, learn to cut through the marketing.
One on side, we have to wait for nutrition science to fill out the holes in their research. On the other side, we have to resist falling prey to the pseudo superiority that some ultra processed foods seem to convey.
In the meanwhile, we can still seek out whole foods.
What are your thoughts? Place them in the comments below!
Great article. The zoe food study being conducted in US and UK on gut microbiome is pointing to evidence that lots of processed food actually harms your gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome plays a fundamental role in a persons health.
Whole foods when eaten provide pre-biotic nutrition to your microbiome. Our knowledge on this subject matter is in its infancy. But we dont really need all this science. Zoe has evidenced that whole foods, plants, spices are all highly beneficial to your microbiome.
Its what grandma always said and she didnt need a phd in nutrition science from Harvard.
Hi Sanjay…yes the Zoe study is great! Tim Spector has done some amazing work with it.
Grandma does know best. But I think science helps us understand the why’s behind grandma’s advice. And that’s an important piece of the puzzle as well.
What matters is only what matters, but we don’t have a full list of what matters (and especially how much it matters). It would also be hyper-useful to know what doesn’t matter – and that is what the current regulations prevent the government from studying and disclosing. All supplements are deemed equivalently innocuous even though there is strong evidence to the contrary. Food claims of beneficial effect are in the same category which leads to the use of words like “supports” and “wellness”.
You hit the nail on the head Doc!! Couldn’t have said it better!!
Excellent article as always Swetha!
Thank you Vijay!!
I like the picture you put for this article – the whole pineapple vs the glass of its juice vs what looks like a cocktail of things put together to make it equivalent. Very apt.
The test finally is in our own experience of how nutrition makes us feel. Even putting aside other factors of exercise, stress, etc, the trouble is that not many of us know how to do a controlled study of, or have the patience to observe, how these variations of whole vs processed food work on us. Especially in the long term. So, tempered with faith in the source of information, we keep jumping from one claim of nutrition to next. And we are encouraged to do so as it gets more convinient.
Your articles give valuable information to devise our own experiments to figure out what works well and adopt the right things for our situational needs – as in: age, life styles, taste likings, body composition from the ayurvedic perspective, etc. Always educational and thought provoking. Thanks.
Wow! Beautifully put!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!