macaroons stacked up

Ultra-processed food doesn’t grow on trees

Humans have processed food for 300,000 years and ultra-processed food for a minuscule fraction of that time.

Ultra-processed food is foods and products made from multiple ingredients that have undergone extensive processing and refinement. These foods are typically high in calories, added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium and are often low in fibre, vitamins, and minerals. 

Anything in the store in a packet or a bottle with a list of ingredients on the side is likely to be ultra-processed food. Fast food, from burgers to chicken nuggets to ready-to-eat meals, also qualify.

The processing to make these foods involves additives, preservatives, and artificial flavours and colours. These foods are often convenient and affordable, not least because they store well and are designed to be easy to transport with a long shelf life. The downside is they are linked to various health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

But here is the thing.

Ultra-processed food doesn’t grow on trees.

Humans have always processed food

The Genus Homo, which includes modern humans, has been around for about 2.8 million years, Homo sapiens (us), for 300,000 years or so.

We have been processing our food for much of this time to increase nutrient availability. Cutting up and cooking meat, cooking tubers, grinding and cooking grains, fermenting milk…

This cleverness with food is probably what made us human.

For the last 8-10,000 years, we have domesticated many plants and animals – farming them rather than chasing them around the landscape. This relatively recent change (2,800,000 versus 10,000 years) meant more and more people growing (or buying) rather than gathering their food. 

So, in terms of human evolution, it hasn’t been that long since we were eating what we gleaned from the landscape we called home. We ate food that was either part of a plant or animal.

0ur new agricultural lifestyle meant food was processed to make it suitable for storage and transport and the ancient forms of processing to increase its nutrient value. To these old forms of processing, we added drying, salting, canning, freezing…

This allowed access to a greater variety of safe and convenient foods and gave birth to a new industry—food processing. 

All good.

person holding a ultra-processed food burger and a take-away coffee
Source: farhad-ibrahimzade-7_9dNlbSxc-unsplash

The recent arrival of ultra-processed food.

Except that processing food for greater nutrient availability and for storage, transport and convenience has given way to ultra-processing—food processing for greater profit.

Food, particularly ultra-processed food and its promotion, has become big business.

Ultra-processed food has been linked to many of the non-communicative diseases growing like topsy worldwide. 

A recent study found that young people in the US now get a third of their energy from ultra-processed foods.

It’s not surprising then to see the health and indeed the life expectancy of humans declining.

We know our ancestors in the genus Homo and their ancestors were fit because we are here. Organisms that survive do so because they are ‘fit’ in the evolutionary sense of the word, successful at survival and reproduction. And all the Hominids achieved this eating plants and animals, minimally processed, for a very long time.

In this evolutionary timeframe, ultra-processed food is a staggering recent innovation. They only became part of the collective diet in the last 100 years and into the mainstream in the last 70 years.

Over a short time, Homo sapiens have taken those plants and animals that we used to eat, messed with them, added all sorts of extra ingredients, and turned them into ‘foods’ that make us sick and shorten our lives.

One hundred years is too short for evolution to notice that ultra-processed food is bad for metabolic health and likely to impact individual fitness. A handful of generations does not register on the evolutionary clock.

Humans also have the unique ability to design and deliver complex medical assistance to individuals suffering from ill health. This helps us cheat the evolutionary process.

What sFED suggests.

Humans have processed food for a long time. We cooked before we farmed and purposely fermented food because processing food has always been necessary to keep scarce food longer. 

Processing food is an advantage, not a problem. 

We also know 8 billion people can’t live on a paleo diet even if that might improve their health. Take commercial grain, sugar and seed oil production out of the food chain, and the calorie and nutrient demands already outstrip the supply we could generate. 

Our collective problem is with ultra-processed food to make cheap, low-nutrient products palatable for profit.
Somehow the global food system must get closer to natural foods not further away and yet meet the 22 trillion a day challenge.

Hero image modified from photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash


Chris is a latecomer to ecology but has happily landed where he should have been all along as an ecological practitioner in his bush regeneration business. When not out passionately managing land, trawling the evidence on nutrition, diet and health or carefully advising NGOs and government, he grows plants in his commercial nursery

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