Our shopping baskets are filled with processed food, but what effect is that having on our health?
Our gut microbiome The microbes living in our gut are critical to our wellbeing, but food additives have an adverse effect on them. Rob Pervical discusses the latest research into ultra-processed food, health and our gut biome
Approximately 100 trillion microorganisms live in the human gastrointestinal tract. Most of them are bacteria, but they also include viruses, fungi and protozoa. In recent years, research has begun to understand the gut microbiome as “a virtual organ of the body” exercising a huge influencing over our health and wellbeing. This research is has begun to look at how ultra-processed foods affect the gut, with significant implications for health policy. Ultra-processed foods make up a high proportion of the UK diet. The UK is the ultra-processed food capital of Europe. Fifty-one per cent of family food purchases in the UK are of ultra-processed foods, compared with 14 per cent in France and 13 per cent in Italy. Ultra-processed
Ultra-processed foods often include additives, such as emulsifiers, and research is showing that these adversely affect the gut microbiome in animals foods often include additives, such as emulsifiers, and research is showing that these adversely affect the gut microbiome in animals. In experiments where mice were fed relatively low concentrations of two commonly used emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, the mice subsequently showed reduced microbial diversity compared with mice not fed with emulsifiers. Research is also linking artificial sweeteners to negative effects on the gut microbiome, with sucralose, aspartame and saccharin shown to disrupt the balance and diversity of microbiota. A lower diversity of microbiota in the human gut has been associated with autoimmune diseases and obesity. Public health policy in the UK,
particularly as it pertains to obesity, is largely focused on the reformulation of processed foods, with government focussed on reducing calories and saturated fat in these foods. Research into the gut microbiome suggests that these efforts might be inadequate and misplaced. The gut microbiome f lourishes when we eat a diet of diverse, fresh foods, including fibrous plants. The focus of health policy should be on increasing the proportion of fresh foods in the diet, instead of on reducing the calorie content of ultraprocessed foods. Research into the gut is still emerging, but it is affirming what the organic movement has known for many years – we should be eating real, fresh foods; and in our diets, as in nature, as in our gut, diversity is the cornerstone of resilience and health.
Rob Percival is Head of Policy Food and Health at the Soil Association. email@example.com
6 Organic Farming Winter 2020
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