Fast food kitchens are kept relatively clean

New food labelingGreen light for junk food

Cookies, vegan spreads, chocolate, sausage, sauces, bread, baby preserves. All products that many people regularly find in their shopping baskets. We often don't even know what's inside.

A label on the packaging should now provide more orientation. So that we eat less sugar, less fat and instead more fiber and vitamins. There is much to suggest that the Nutri-Score will not change our eating habits either. Because the root of the evil lies elsewhere.

Most of the shopping baskets also contain highly processed foods (dpa / Caroline Silk)

"May we take a look below in your pocket? What do you have there? You still have farmer's bread mix in there." "Well, I'm not the greatest baking artist and then I like to grab it. For me, it usually has to be quick, due to work go fast."

"Yes, classic smarties. Is that ultra-processed now?" "The Nutri-Score would be a red E. And the Nova level, i.e. the level of processing levels, is also 4." "Hm. That is unfortunately not that good at all. I was also aware of that beforehand. But there must be small sins, unfortunately. In small quantities that is no problem at all."

Consumption of ultra-processed products is increasing sharply

But it often does not stop at small quantities, says Margareta Büning-Fesel, the head of the Federal Center for Nutrition in Bonn, which is part of the Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture. The consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased significantly over the past few decades:

"These ultra-processed or highly processed foods no longer contain normal foods, but I have constituents of foods. And especially constituents of foods that are also available very cheaply in large quantities, such as corn, wheat, soy, sugar or Potatoes. "

Such cheap ingredients increase the profit margins of the food companies and encourage monocultures.

"And from these products, food compositions are then made through a wide variety of processing stages and technical processes, which then also have stabilizers, the auxiliaries, the flavorings and so on, in order to produce a product that I would never make in my kitchen."

Very tasty, but probably very problematic too

And could not manufacture either, because ingredients such as soy protein isolate or titanium dioxide cannot be bought in the supermarket. Stefan Kabisch, study doctor at the German Institute for Nutritional Research in Potsdam:

"Ultimately, the result is a food that is edible, palatable and, as a rule, unfortunately very, very tasty, but where a lot of important things are missing and a lot of unfavorable things are represented to a very high degree."

Margareta Büning-Fesel: "There are still no really well-founded, evidence-based studies that can really prove the real problem with highly processed foods, but there are many indications that suggest that it is problematic."

In the UK, Australia and Canada, highly processed foods now account for around half of the calories consumed. The latest figures for Germany come from the University of Paderborn and the nutritionist Prof. Helmut Heseker.

The latest figures for Germany are from 2015

His Institute for Nutrition, Consumption and Health published the only German study on this in 2015:

"We looked at how high is the percentage of fresh food that we still consume? How high is the percentage of less processed and heavily processed so-called ultra-processed foods."

Usually you will not find any information on the degree of processing in the nutritional tables that are then required for the evaluation.

"And we tried very hard to find out whether it was a fresh food, a processed one, a heavily processed one."
"That was a mega-job, wasn't it?"
"Yes, my PhD student cursed quite a few times and sweated an endless amount of time to pull together all of this data. Results: Today, adults take in about 46 percent of calories from fresh foods, about 25 percent are processed foods and about 27 to 28 percent of these highly processed foods. "

Vegan and vegetarian foods are also often ultra-processed (imago stock & people / epd / Heike Lyding)

Vegan and GMO-free, but ultra-processed

Ultra-processed foods are convenient because they can be consumed instantly. They have a long shelf life and are usually significantly cheaper than fresh food. The 39-year-old Daniela Schwalb also uses such products every now and then without ever being aware of it. Together with Margareta Büning-Fesel I spoke to her in the parking lot of a supermarket in Bonn:

"May we take a look in your shopping bag?"
"Yes, gladly. I really like vegetarian products and have now come across these items ..."

She digs a frozen pack of vegan minced meat out of her bag.

"... that taste incredibly good and are a good substitute for those who just want to eat a little less meat."
"So there is an 'Open Food Facts' app, where you can see again how that is to be classified, whether it is really a highly processed food. And a reference point for highly processed foods are products or substances that I never use I would use in the kitchen: for example, rehydrated pea protein, wheat gluten, stabilizer, methyl cellulose. These are all substances that help me make a tasty meat substitute out of this. But they would be classified as highly processed. "
"Would you have classified this as an ultra-processed food by now?"
"Not that strong. No. Well, I thought there was a little more nature in there."

Seduction to overeat

Companies that label their products with terms such as "organic", "vegan" or "GMO-free" increase their sales by an average of seven percent per year. One would think that the customer benefits. But that's not necessarily true, says nutritionist Helmut Heseker:

"Well, one problem arises from the fact that they are very tasty. They make us eat a lot more than we really wanted."

Some ultra-processed foods lead us to overeating, to overeating, because that is exactly what they have been optimized for.

"The problem is: We need a good stomach filling. We have known a hormone, that is ghrelin, for about 20 years. Ghrelin is a hunger hormone. It activates the urge to eat."

The metabolic hormone ghrelin is released from the stomach lining and ensures that we feel hunger in the brain.

"What we notice in the morning is: The stomach is empty. This empty stomach produces ghrelin, which enters my brain via the bloodstream and switches on the urge to eat. And we only stop eating when the stomach is full, Because then the ghrelin production stops. And if we just stuff a chocolate bar into our stomach in the morning, then we have formally enough calories that should last until noon, but we don't have any stomach distension and the ghrelin and the resulting urge to eat remains . "

"Feeding Formula" targets reward signals in the brain

This is good for the international food companies, because our greed for supplies increases their sales. But it's bad for humans. We are unable to instinctively decipher such high-energy, ultra-processed foods, to correctly estimate their caloric content. This is also due to the hormone dopamine, which fuels our reward system in the brain, says ecotrophologist Margareta Büning-Fesel:

"It is very interesting that you can prove that when foods contain a certain ratio, for example sugar and fat, that reward signals are released. Animal experiments have shown that such a ratio, for example, 43 percent carbohydrates, 34 percent fat, that this is a very special activation of the reward signals in our brain. "

Mixtures with which the food industry fuels our cravings are also called "feeding formulas". It is better than ever in natural foods, but you can find it in vegan sausages as well as in a frozen pizza. Most certainly in potato chips.

Potato chips in an open bag - who can stop eating after a "portion"? (picture alliance / dpa / Romain Fellens)

The chip bag is practically always eaten empty

Helmut Heseker: "It says that a portion is 20 or 30 grams, but hardly anyone can stop eating before the whole pack is empty. And that is an energy-dense food. Energy-dense foods usually have a high content in carbohydrates and fats. "

"I'm kind of looking for the list of ingredients, and it has to be here somewhere. Now I've found something: Mashed potatoes, vegetable oils from sunflower and corn, rice flour, wheat starch, corn flour, barbecue seasoning mix, sugar, breadcrumbs, various flavors and flavor enhancers, monosodium glutamate, Disodium. Then there is tomato powder, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika powder. Then there is a coloring agent, acidifier, smoke flavoring. Then yeast extract, which is also a flavor enhancer, then another emulsifier, maltodextrin is also in here. So you are looking at a huge list Ingredients that were used here to make this product tasty. You can see from the large number of ingredients alone that this is not a natural food. It is a highly processed, ultra-processed food. "

More and more people are overweight

Eating behavior has changed in large parts of the world over the past few decades. Instead of cooking, "fast food" was increasingly on the menu; instead of fresh ingredients, instant food ended up in the shopping cart. Some manufacturers advertised their health benefits, such as breakfast cereals fortified with vitamins. Over the same period, more and more people became overweight. In Brazil, for example, the number of obese young adults doubled to almost 18 percent in eleven years. Reason enough for the Brazilian government to pull the emergency brake.

Brazil was the first country in the world to blame food processing and not the nutrients it contains, such as fat, sugar and carbohydrates, for obesity and explicitly warned against the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

(imago stock & people) Help for overweight children: critical kilos
More than 15 percent of children and adolescents in Germany are overweight. You are at high risk of complications - from diabetes to joint pain and depression. The food industry also has to change something.

Countries like Ecuador, Uruguay and Peru followed the Brazilian example. Chile limits the advertising of so-called children's foods. And the French government also wants to reduce the consumption of highly processed products by 20 percent by 2023.

And Germany? Margareta Büning-Fesel: "Something comparable is not being discussed in Germany at the moment. But we should deal with it and give it more consideration."

What we need above all for this is clear evidence - and that doesn't exist yet.

Fruit and vegetables belong to level 1 in the Nova system (picture alliance / dpa / Benjamin Nolte)

"Nova system" indicates the degree of processing

In order to better scientifically examine highly processed foods, the Brazilian scientist and doctor Carlos Monteiro developed a new classification for foods. Instead of grouping foods according to their content of energy, salt, fat and sugar, as was previously the case, his four-stage Nova system is based on the degree of processing.

Level 1: "Unprocessed and minimally processed foods": For example, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and milk.

Level 2: "Processed Culinary Ingredients":These are things like oil, flour, salt, and sugar. Extracts that are obtained from natural foods and that we use for the preparation of dishes, e.g. salt for cooking potatoes.

Level 3: "Processed Food":These include smoked fish, pickles or canned tomatoes. They are preserved, pickled or fermented foods that contain only a few ingredients and that we can combine with level 1 foods, such as potatoes.

Level 4: "Ultra-processed foods":Potato chips, frozen pizza, soft drinks, sachet soups, for example. All products that have gone through many processing steps and contain a long list of ingredients and additives.

Stefan Kabisch: "Where in the end almost only extracted ingredients are thrown together. Where very useful ingredients, which the natural food may contain, are filtered out because they may interfere with the appearance of the food because they may affect the taste."

(dpa-tmn / Zacharie Scheurer) How plant-based substitute products are changing the milk system
While milk consumption has been falling for years, substitute drinks made from raw materials such as oats are enjoying ever greater popularity. In the future, it could change the entire system of cow's milk production - and ultimately agriculture too.

The Nova system also has weaknesses

Doctors and nutritionists find it helpful to take into account the degree of processing in the scientific assessment of foods, but also see weaknesses in the Nova system.

"What this classification suggests a bit is that there is a very neat gradation: the lower the level, the natural the food, the healthier. And that it would be like this that all foods that are in a group, so to speak But that is not the case with a whole range of foods. So if you take household sugar in group 2, for example, then it is also a problem above a certain amount, even if it is on the second lowest level. "

An industrially produced white bread and a wholemeal bread from the baker would also be in the same Nova level, criticizes Kabisch:

"This is a completely different food from a nutritional point of view, but is in the same category. Purely from the label on the food, they would appear equivalent."

He therefore advocates using the Nova system as a supplement to existing classifications for dietary recommendations. Studies have now shown that the degree of food processing has an impact on our health on average.

Studies suggest risk of diabetes or even cancer

"You can see in these studies that patients who consume more of these foods have a correspondingly higher risk of type 2 diabetes, of being very overweight and also of secondary diseases associated with these symptoms. Ten secondary diseases , 15 years later. "

A French study even suggests that consuming ultra-processed foods increases the risk of cancer.

Kabisch: "But the crux of the matter is to say: Which processing step is the dangerous one? Is it the fiber that has been lost or is it the sugar that was mixed in, or is it the fats? And there we are So back to the methodological problem of the observational study: You have many factors that come together. In the end, you can't separate them cleanly. At the same time that we have this increase in unhealthy food, people have also become significantly less active. The air has become dirtier. So there are actually many civilization processes that affect the whole of life, so it is relatively tricky to identify which processing steps we could practically afford and which we should definitely avoid. "

It is difficult to say whether illnesses are specifically caused by food or a generally unhealthy lifestyle (imago stock & people)

Correlations, but little evidence of adverse effects

There are clues, correlations - but hardly any evidence. This is due to a fundamental problem in nutrition research, which is based predominantly on data from observational studies around the world.

"These are very, very large studies.That makes them statistically very reliable, because you can see with very, very high precision, purely mathematically - is there an effect to be seen, is there a correlation? These observational studies also have the great advantage that you can evaluate very long periods of time, that you can judge how a food I ate 30 years ago affects my current risk of cancer, heart attack or type 2 diabetes - including the restriction that it is just a correlation that you can never be sure that this specific food causes this specific disease. "

Randomized controlled studies in which two test groups are randomly assigned a certain food - or not - would be desirable, says study doctor Stefan Kabisch, but unrealistic:

"You can't randomly order 50,000 people to cook either with sugar or without sugar for the next 30 years in order to see in the end what is the result in terms of health? That is too expensive and definitely an illusion that people will stick to it for so long become."

A pound of weight gain in 14 days

One of the few gold standard studies was carried out by the American nutrition researcher Kevin Hall. He found ten men and ten women who volunteered to live in his laboratory for a month in isolation from the rest of the world. One group ate exclusively on highly processed foods, the other group only on dishes freshly prepared from natural ingredients. After 14 days it was changed. The bottom line: the levels of fat, protein, carbohydrates, salt and fiber were comparable in both groups. The calorie content of the food on offer was also the same. The participants were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. Hall wanted to find out whether ultra-processed foods actually make us overeat.

Margareta Büning-Fesel from the Federal Center for Nutrition:

"What I found interesting about this study by Hall was that over this short period of time - within 14 days - the weight of the people who ate these highly processed foods rose by almost one kilo. Those who ate unprocessed foods, the weight went down rather. "

Blood analyzes also showed that the special composition of the ultra-processed foods kept the amount of the hunger hormone ghrelin high.

"And it also showed that the energy intake of the people with the highly processed products was 500 calories higher than the energy intake of the people with the freshly prepared meals."

500 more calories - per day! The study, published in 2019, is considered strong evidence that highly processed foods keep us eating and make us so fat. And, statistically speaking, fat makes you sick.

A chocolate bar already covers a considerable part of the daily calorie requirement (dpa / Picture alliance / Martin Gerten)

Calorie bombs with unrealistic portion information

While unprocessed foods usually contain less than 100 calories per hundred grams, highly processed products are often real calorie bombs due to the dehydration and the addition of fat and sugar, which can bring it to more than 500 calories per 100 grams, explains nutritionist Helmut Heseker :

"I brought a biscuit with me, plus chocolate. Let's take a look at the energy density. That's 523 calories per 100 grams. How much does an average person need? Maybe 2000 calories if they don't exercise a lot. That means, I already have a quarter of my daily requirement in there. "
"With 100 grams?"
"Exactly, with 100 grams."
"My stomach isn't full of that."
"No, and it makes you want to eat more. And somewhere it says what is considered to be a portion. The food industry naturally tries to make it more attractive. A portion is assumed here: two pieces. Who can do it? just take two pieces out of this tempting-looking packaging? "
"Not me! You?"
"Probably not either. We protect ourselves from the fact that we hardly have such products in the household."

Huge advertising spending influences consumer behavior

But that's not that easy at all. The international food companies leave no stone unturned to make their products tasty for us according to all the rules of marketing. The advertising expenditure for snacks, sweets and ice cream in 2011 was a hundred times higher than that for fruit and vegetables - says the Federal Statistical Office. The industry replies that more and more health-physiologically valuable products populate the shelves. The colorful pictures and the little gimmicks in the boxes are often aimed at children and young people.

Heseker: "And there is also an old wisdom of the food manufacturers: win the children over for the taste of your products, and you have customers for the rest of your life."

I'm on the road again with Margareta Büning-Fesel from the Federal Center for Nutrition. We meet Stefan Meyer, 43 years old, athletic figure, amateur cook, he tells us.

"You were just shopping in the supermarket. May we take a look in your bag?"
"With pleasure."
"What do we see when we look inside? At least a highly processed food."
"My lunch. It's a prawn and mango curry with noodles that just needs to be warmed up in the microwave and then it's ready."
"There is an app - Open Food Facts - and this app not only shows the Nutri-Score, but also the processing stage. I would like to scan it in." "With pleasure."

Keeping an eye on things is difficult when shopping

Nutri-Score - this is the colored food logo that can already be found on the front of some food packaging. With a combination of colors and letters, it should show us at a glance how healthy a product is.

"So the Nutri-Score is B. That means regardless of the processing, the pure nutritional composition - there is not too much salt or fat in there and there are vegetables in it - and that means that the Nutri-Score is very favorable . "
"But with Nova, is it the highest level in the processed food categorization?"
"It's the highest level. So it's a highly processed food."
"I mainly try to eat healthy, but that's one thing here, something had to be done quickly."

Ultimately, more than half of the food he purchases falls under the highest two Nova levels 3 and 4. Although he attaches great importance to healthy eating and although he also reads the lists of ingredients in small print on the packaging.

"What would you want from politics to perhaps make it easier for you to shop healthier?"
"So this food traffic light, it was already a good approach to get a relatively easy indication of whether the food is now healthier."

Algorithm weighs up positive and negative ingredients

Something similar to the food traffic light known from Great Britain is the Nutri-Score. And it will now be launched in Germany in November.

Herbert Heseker: "A lot of resistance from the food industry, but in response to pressure from consumer associations, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has set out to legalize that we get the Nutri-Score."

Behind this is an algorithm that weighs up positive and negative ingredients against each other and then, for example, spits out a dark green A for frozen fries because they are made from raw potatoes. If they are already baked and seasoned, they end up at the yellow C. The classic Cola gets a red E, the Cola Zero a light green B. The colored nutritional logo should make it easier to compare yoghurts with each other and, at best, let us choose the healthier variant. However, the degree of processing of the products does not play a role. This weakens the validity of the Nutri-Score. Nevertheless, Stefan Kabisch is convinced that he is of great help to many people:

"The prerequisite is, of course, that ultimately all food, at least all food that has been processed in some way, is classified in this way. If you leave this open to manufacturers as to whether or not to use this label, then the very unhealthy foods will tend to remain unlabeled for so long until it is ordered. "

Consumer Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) is campaigning for the new Nutri-Score (imago / Klaus W. Schmidt)

Labeling remains voluntary for the time being

However, it will not be ordered for the foreseeable future. The food manufacturers can decide for themselves whether they want to print the Nutri-Score on their product. There is no other way, says Federal Food Minister Julia Klöckner. Only the EU can regulate it in a binding manner. This is why consumer associations and scientists are calling for Julia Klöckner to campaign for this in Brussels - especially now, during the German EU Council Presidency. At her inaugural press conference in July, she said:

"Personally, I think a uniform labeling system is absolutely important. But you know, I make no secret of the fact that Italy sees things differently. In Italy there is the battery model, in Scandinavia there is Keyhole - it is very different. So we advertise for it, because we have a chance to give the consumer better orientation with the Nutri-Score topic; European. And that's a thick board. We'll start with it. "

In other words, experience has shown that it will take years before there is an EU-wide mandatory food logo. If it doesn't succeed, the Nutri-Score threatens to turn into a toothless tiger. In France, where it was introduced voluntarily in 2017, it can only be found on five percent of products.

"National reduction strategy" for finished products

In addition to the Nutri-Score, the Federal Ministry of Food also relies on the so-called "National Reduction and Innovation Strategy for Sugar, Fats and Salt in Ready-Made Products", explains Margareta Büning-Fesel, head of the Federal Center for Nutrition in Bonn, which is part of the Federal Ministry of Food.

"Where agreements have been made with the food manufacturers about the percentage by which these critical substances - sugar, fats and salt - are reduced. Target agreements have been made with the strong desire to keep certain yoghurt products less sweet makes certain sweet drinks less sweet. "

So there is a "strong wish" that by 2025, for example, breakfast cereals contain 20 percent less sugar, soft drinks 15 percent and yoghurts for children ten percent less sugar. Everything voluntarily! Büning Fesel:

"Of course they're still very cute, and they're still at this high level of processing."

Sweet, sweeter, sweetest: Soft drinks are one of the main sources of unhealthy nutrition. (imago / picture enclosure)

Penalty taxes for unhealthy food?

Some countries are trying to counteract the increasing consumption of unhealthy food by increasing taxation: Great Britain has made high-sugar foods more expensive, Denmark introduced a fat tax and Mexico a confectionery and junk food tax. For Mexico, for example, initial studies show that less sugar was actually consumed. However, so far this has hardly had any impact on obesity, because low-wage earners in particular continue to consume high-calorie ultra-processed foods because they are usually still cheaper than fresh ones. This is where a proposal from Germany comes into play. Büning Fesel:

"If you look at the opinion of the Scientific Advisory Board on Agriculture and Food, the scientists there also suggest certain financial incentives to promote certain foods more or to limit the quantities of other foods."

(dpa) How the food supply is changing due to Corona
The corona crisis has shown how important the domestic production of food can be - the demand for regional products is increasing. However, experts doubt that this trend will continue. Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner even warns against "consumer nationalism".

Specifically, in June 2020 the Scientific Advisory Board recommended, in addition to a sugar tax, that the reduced VAT rate only be retained for fruit, vegetables and legumes and that animal products be provided with the higher VAT rate in future.

"But these are proposals from a scientific advisory board, and what comes out in the end is what is possible in politics."

"Maybe the level of suffering is not high enough yet"

And that is often too little, criticizes nutritionist Helmut Heseker:

"Here the state is very cautious. It restricts itself more to soft measures. They demand that nutritional advice has to be improved. That is always the individual who is called upon to do so. Education should be improved. And you trust don't really get on with taking additional measures on the part of the state because at the moment the lobbyists are immediately shouting if a food there is to be taxed more heavily, such as lemonade. Perhaps the suffering is not great enough. "

A tax on all calorie-dense, industrially produced foods - this discussion has not even started in Germany. There is still a need for research. Margareta Büning-Fesel:

"But I still think that the studies that are available so far give us indications and arguments, especially food, to restrict this highly processed level, i.e. level 4."

But because politics ducks back, the renunciation remains a private matter. After all: According to a survey by the Federal Ministry of Food, 30 percent of those surveyed have prepared their meals more often since the pandemic. Like Stefan Meyer, in whose shopping basket there is also a fresh fish.

"At home I only pour olive oil over it, put fresh dill on it and then put it on the grill. The whole thing is planned with lamb's lettuce and rocket." "Then I hope you enjoy cooking tonight."