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Less processed foods to feed everyone (and feed them better)

The industrialization of production processes has changed the nature of the foods we eat, especially carbohydrates. Researcher Camillo Ricordi, an expert on diabetes, explains why this is a problem and what we can do to fix it.

Modern agricultural and food processing technology has played an important role in supplying easily accessible and affordable food products on a large scale. Nevertheless, the industrialization of food production has gone hand in hand with the proliferation of chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. These are now spreading throughout the world, from North America to Europe, to Australia, to the Middle East, and even to South America and Asia, with countries, like Japan, that have historically enjoyed one of the longest and healthiest life expectancies on the planet.
In fact, it is currently estimated that one third of the United States population is afflicted with a chronic or incurable illness, while obesity and an epidemic of metabolic syndromes have led to a dramatic increase in cases of diabetes, from which 392 million people on the planet now suffer. Scientific research shows that there is a connection between these diseases and the large scale adoption of a western diet heavy in meat and dairy products that have been industrially processed and a high consumption of products containing refined flours.
This was the topic of a multidisciplinary meeting of representatives from the carbohydrate production and consumption industry promoted by BCFN and held in Parma, Italy, at the end of September. And it will also be one of the topics discussed at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition, scheduled to take place in Milan on 1 December 2016.


Inflammation is at the bottom of it all
Among the specific trigger factors for obesity and this epidemic of chronic illnesses are the increased consumption of dairy products, full of long chain fatty acids which facilitate inflammation, and refined carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (GI) such as potatoes, white rice, and baked goods (bread, pizza, cookies) made with refined or fractionated vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid, the precursor of arachidonic acid (also considered a “pro-inflammatory” from the Omega-6 series). These products, especially in certain combinations, can stimulate the cell walls to secrete prostaglandin, which can cause an inflammatory reaction in the surrounding area.
Foods with a high glycemic load (GL, or high sugar content) and a high glycemic index should be consumed infrequently and in small doses, also in relation to a person’s age and taking into consideration their level of physical activity and lifestyle. However consumption should be reduced and severely rationed (or avoided entirely) for people who are overweight or who suffer from a metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, gall bladder dysfunction, or other chronic degenerative disease.
All food producers should be encouraged to produce foods with a low GI and a low GL, but also to avoid the use of certain types of unhealthy proteins, sugars, flours, and fats. If they did so it could have a double advantage: it could provide new health benefits to products, thus increasing their commercial value, and also satisfy the new trend of healthy dietary habits and disease prevention.


A claim for the future
The International Forum on Food and Nutrition promoted by BCFN in Milan has chosen “Eat better Eat less Food for all” as its theme. As an expert diabetes researcher this to me seems to be the only sensible strategy. To Eat better  means to focus on quality, reduce intake of simple sugars and high GI carbohydrates, and choose foods that are known to be anti-inflammatory given that inflammation is at the root of many chronic degenerative diseases. It means increasing consumption of omega 3 fatty acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants, while also always being careful about the environmental impact of the foods chosen.
To Eat less means being careful about portions, ordering a dish but sharing it between two people, reducing food waste, buying only what is needed, and ordering only what can be and should be consumed. In order to do this it is necessary to encourage restaurants to introduce “wellness portions”, with smaller and healthier amounts.
Lastly, in order Food for all, simply reducing our food waste and our use of agricultural products destined for biofuel or for intense feeding of factory farm animals by one quarter would be enough. This simple gesture would feed hundreds of millions of malnourished people suffering from hunger and would also reduce meat consumption, with improvements in overall health as well.

Professor Camillo Ricordi, director of the Diabetes Research Institute and Cell Transplant Program, University of Miami, member of the BCFN Advisory Board
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