In the previous column, we discussed the major ingredients of junk food that can have a detrimental effect on our health. Next in the series, we focus on the ingredients of junk food that are used to enhance the acceptability or acceptance of different fast food products. Though used in small fractions, these may produce exponential health hazards.
The acceptability of junk and processed foods and beverages refers to how customers react to and trade-off these products based on the characteristics like taste, texture, appearance, and sense of pleasure. In simple words, acceptability is how eager or interested a customer is in that food type.
That’s why junk food producers are using certain tactics to improve these characteristics to promote acceptability, some of which may harm you more than what you expect. Also, the texture of food plays a significant role in influencing consumers’ perception of “quality” and eating experience. The three major characteristics that determine acceptability are taste, texture and shelf life. Multiple chemicals and synthetic ingredients are used to improve these characteristics of the otherwise calorically dense and nutritionally barren packaged food.
A taste enhancer is a substance that has no taste of its own but has the properties to modify or increase the intensity of the perceived taste or smell of the food. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners (e.g. high fructose corn syrup), and sodium chloride (salt) are among the most commonly used taste enhancers in industrial preparations.
MSG acts by adding a taste quality to the food (called umami in Japanese) which enhances palatability (the sense of pleasantness in a food) without affecting the intensity of other ingredients. Other taste enhancers like sweeteners and NaCl work the same way by adding sweetness or saltiness to food, respectively.
Further, they enhance palatability by neutralising the bitterness attributed to some food substances. However, this “pleasantness” comes at a cost, which we will discuss in the latter part of the article.
Food texture leaves a significant influence on consumers’ perception of “quality”, which is attributed to a biological process. When we chew, the brain receives the information on changes in the texture of a food through the sense of hearing, from the sensors present in the mouth, and also from memory when you had the food with the same texture.
The most commonly used texture enhancers are polyols, oligosaccharides, starches, gums, polydextrose, resistant dextrins, maltodextrins, etc. These ingredients can be broadly categorised into the following categories:
Emulsifiers: These are used to prevent the separation of solids and liquids. Common examples are monoglycerides and soy lecithin.
Thickeners: Substances like pectin, xanthan gum, carrageenan, and guar gum, etc are used as thickeners to showcase consistency.
Flavours: Added flavours are used in food such as flavored yogurt or fruit extracts to enhance both the smell and taste of the product.
Colours: Artificial colours or dyes) are used in fast or junk foods such as fruit-flavored drinks, candies, ice creams, beverages, and whatnot.
Preservatives for longer shelf life
Natural foods have a brief shelf life. On the contrary, junk foods have comparatively longer shelf life, thanks to artificial ways of food preservation that are used to increase their shelf lives at the cost of your health. These ways may include nuclear radiation, vacuum packing, and hypobaric packing. In addition, synthetic chemicals are used as food preservatives to expand the shelf life of food products.
These chemicals may include:
Sulfites that are used to preserve various fruits
Nitrates and nitrites that are used as curing agents in meat products
Benzoates that are used in foods as antimicrobial preservatives
Quantity doesn’t matter when it comes to hazards. Junk foods stand true to their name as they are not just worthless but come with multiple hazards, with gut health being the immediate ‘beneficiary’ in negative terms though.
These ingredients may enhance the taste and palatability of the food, but are linked to problems including obesity, metabolic disorders, and release of glutamic metabolites after ingestion. They may also cause alterations of gut microbiota composition and SCFAs production, thereby compromising gut permeability and immune homeostasis
The Bottom Line
While we don’t mean to scare you, it is important to mention here that one of the research has used the term “Fast Food Genocide” for the increased use of fast food. Junk or fast foods don’t belong to a category that warrants moderation. It warrants strict “abstinence” because all it has to offer is mass destruction, already evident in the increased number of health problems related to synthetics used in the fast food industry.
Manjari Chandra is a consultant, functional nutrition and nutritional medicine, Manjari Wellness, New Delhi. Her column appears every fortnight