Ultra-Processed…Ultra-Problematic (Pt. 1)

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: you are ready to get your health in check, so you decide to start a new healthy diet! You race over to your local grocery store and fill up your cart with only the best food items (or so you think). You start grabbing colorfully packaged items that catch your eye because they are “Non-GMO, Organic, Gluten-Free, No-Sugar Added, Fat-Free, Heart Healthy, Protein-Packed, etc…” You blindly throw these items into your cart without thinking twice, but in all honesty, maybe you should take a minute or two to read the nutrition label of what you are about to throw down your gullet. For instance, maybe you heard somewhere that protein is important for building muscles, so you decide to buy some protein bars at the store to increase the daily percentage of protein in your diet.

So you are racing through Aisle 6 and see this beautiful red-orange packaging that has word “PROTEIN” large enough to catch your darting eyes. You recognize the reliable name of the brand, “Kind” and BOOM…you have just been hoodwinked. You have fallen into an age-old trap. Why you may ask…let me show you.

Let’s dive into the nutrition label of this “protein-packed” Kind bar:

So let’s unpack this a bit. The label clearly says “Protein From Real Food.” Cool, so then let’s take a glance at the nutrition label. If you are unfamiliar with nutrition labels, the ingredients are listed in order of their predominance in the food (i.e. the first item listed is the most prominent). Just looking at the first five ingredients, two of the ingredients are forms of sugar (honey and glucose syrup), one of the ingredients is an indigestible fiber (meaning we do not absorb it, thereby it has no true nutritional value; chicory root fiber), and then we see our protein sources are coming from soy protein isolate and peanuts.

Well if you think soy protein isolate is a form of “real food” as the package suggests, then you are highly misinformed. Although soy protein isolate can be formulated in a variety of ways, the most common methodology I have come across in the literature goes something like this: First, soybeans are de-hulled, flaked, and de-fatted using a process known as hexane extraction (the addition of industry-grade hexane to soybeans, followed by hexane evaporation to extract the oil out of the soybeans; 1, 2). After hexane extraction, the oil-less soybean then goes through alkali extraction (using a solution with a basic pH; pH>7) to remove approximately 90% of the protein from the soybean (2, 3). Finally, the fiber is removed via centrifugation (a technique used to separate particles in a solution based on size, density, shape, and viscosity using centrifugal force), and the resultant protein is re-precipated and dried to create a powder-like substance (2). Well, I don’t know about you, but I have a background in organic chemistry, and I am quite lost trying to follow all this! So I guess when all is said and done, the only natural protein source is from peanuts (and in fact, other than sea-salt, peanuts are the only “natural” ingredient in this bar).

I won’t go into detail on the remaining ingredients, but I encourage you to do your own research. I mean it doesn’t take a PhD in nutritional sciences to realize that things like palm kernel oil (ingredient #6) and soy lecithin (ingredient #11) are in fact not natural!

And now I am sure you are wondering about that cool looking graph I inserted in the top right corner. This is the brainchild of Dr. Ted Naiman, a huge advocate of a high protein diet. Dr. Naiman is one of my favorite doctors (yeah that’s right, some people have favorite superheroes or celebrities…well I have favorite doctors), and I highly encourage all my readers to take a look at his new book, the “P:E Diet.” Essentially, this graph allows you to put in the nutritional information of any food item to see the break down of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Additionally, this system creates a nutritional vector based on the ratio of protein to energy (carbohydrates and fats) in that food item.

Just as a brief foundation, 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories (measured in kilojoules), 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories. So, we see that this “protein bar” with 18g of fat, 17g of carbohydrates (11g of net carbohydrates when you subtract the 6g of indigestible fiber)and 12g of protein is about 250 calories. About 64% of those calories come from fat, 19% from protein, and 17% from carbohydrates. This creates a wimpy Protein: Energy of 0.41. This ratio is found by taking the grams of protein divided by the sum of net carbohydrates and fat. Thus, for every gram of protein there is about 2.42g of energy. So you tell me…do we really want to consider this a protein bar?

I am sure once the shock has worn off, you are probably wondering something along the lines of, “well why is it so bad that the Protein:Energy is so low?” To answer that, I will first say that you should be pissed at the fact that food companies are allowed to place a veil over our heads with claims such as “Protein from Real Food” etched across the front of a label, when in fact, there truly is only one natural food found in the bar, and that only 19% of the calories in this bar are from protein. Nevertheless, I will attempt to answer this question using a biochemical basis in a very superficial manner to hit the high points and avoid confusion (Like I’ve said before…the human metabolism is bonkers).

At their roots, our non-protein sources of energy (carbohydrates and fats) are simply just high-energy bonds squished in between carbon atoms. When we boil this down, we see that the high energy bonds are usually connecting two carbon atoms(C-C) or a carbon atom and hydrogen atom (C-H). These high-energy C-C or C-H bonds come in two flavors: 1) as water-soluble (dissolves in water) carbohydrates such as glucose, fructose, or sucrose, or 2) as water insoluble (does not dissolve in water) hydrocarbons/fats.

On the left is a 6 carbon carbohydrate, glucose, and on the right is a 16 carbon fat, palmitic acid. Circled in red are examples of the high energy C-C and C-H. Images taken from: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-structure-of-glucose
https://www.assignmentpoint.com/science/chemistry/palmitic-acid.html

Of course, we as humans are not just energy, we also need protein (made up of amino acids) and minerals to round us out.

The amino acid, leucine. The defining features of amino acids (compared to carbohydrates and fats) are the carboxyl group (COOH) and amine group (NH2) linked to the same carbon (alpha carbon). Image from: https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free-vector/leucine-skeletal-formula-vector-26783976

So let’s take a 10,000 foot view as to what happens after we eat carbohydrates, fats, and/or proteins. Digestion actually begins in the mouth. We have tons of enzymes in our saliva (if you have taken any upper level biology classes, you may be familiar with salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme found in our saliva). Once chewed and broken down by digestive enzymes, the food slides down the esophagus where the entities are pushed into the stomach. Within the stomach (highly acidic) the food is further broken down via digestive enzymes, and then is shuttled into the first portion of the small intestine, the duodenum. Further and more complete digestion occurs at this point in the digestive tract and our macro-nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) are broken down into their basic parts. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, non-fibrous carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars (like glucose), and dietary fats (referred to as triglycerides; three fatty acids linked together by a glycerol backbone) are broken down into free fatty acids (the glycerol backbone is removed). And just as a side note, remember that fibrous carbs are not digested or absorbed so they just continue right on along through the digestive tract. Finally, at this point, the broken down nutrients (amino acids, simple sugars, and free fatty-acids), minerals, vitamins, and water are absorbed into the bloodstream (4).

With a subsequent post-prandial (after a meal) spike in nutrients in the bloodstream, an important signal is sent to the pancreas (in a metabolically healthy individual). Within the pancreas is a specific region of interest known as the islets of Langerhans that houses three distinct types of cells: 1) α-cells which secrete (“release”) the peptide hormone glucagon, 2) β-cells which secrete the peptide hormone insulin, and 3) δ-cells which secrete the peptide hormone somatostatin. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with insulin, and if you have had an upper level biology course then I am sure you have been introduced to glucagon (for the sake of this article we are not focusing on somatostatin, but if you are curious, its role is to help control the secretion of insulin, glucagon and acinar cell proteases, which break down proteins). However, in a post-prandial state, elevated blood glucose levels stimulate the β-cells to secrete insulin (this is a much more complex process involving an enzyme, glucokinase). Glucagon is still secreted in small amounts, but in a metabolically healthy individual, insulin will predominant in a post-prandial state. Insulin has several roles, but of importance to this article, insulin stimulates glucose uptake (storage) as glycogen, in the liver, skeletal muscle and adipose tissue (fat tissue) and enhances fatty acid uptake (storage) in adipose (fat) tissue in the form of triacylglycerol. For simplicity of this article, protein is used for a variety of cellular processes, but importantly, protein cannot be stored for later, so excess protein is converted into glucose or stored as fat. The role of protein is worthy of its own article (but in brief, protein is very hard to overeat due to its high satiety effects, but like always, if we overeat our calories, our body will store said calories as fat…even if the calories are coming from protein).

So now we have established dietary carbohydrates and dietary fats are stored in two completely separate locations, and this should make sense because carbohydrates are water-soluble and fats are water-insoluble so of course they can’t be stored in the same place (5).

Since there are two separate storage systems, I think it is important to briefly highlight carbohydrate storage capacity for the sake of this article. These values vary, so I am using the data reported in Dr. Naiman’s P:E Diet. Your bloodstream can hold 4 g of glucose, muscles can hold 300g of glycogen (but this can only be used when one maintains about 90 minutes of high intensity exercise…which is not very likely to occur in the average American), and your liver can hold 100g of glycogen. Dr Naiman also notes that you need to fast for approximately 24 hours to deplete your liver glycogen stores (6). Thus, this means that if you are eating more than 100g of carbohydrates a day without hitting about 90 minutes of high-intensity exercise, you will probably never deplete you liver glycogen. If this is the case, your liver can try as hard as possible to store more glycogen, but when it reaches its capacity, that’s all folks. These excess dietary carbohydrates are then converted into fatty acids (or triacylglycerol as mentioned before) and stored as fat (this is a process known as denovo-lipogenesis-DNL). Due to the process of DNL and our ability to generate new fat cells, our ability to store fat is far far far greater than our ability to store carbohydrates. And if we just think back to that small “Kind” bar from the beginning, let us not forget that it had a whopping 17g of carbohydrates. The scary thing is that for most people that is just one small snack for the day…think about how fast those carbohydrates add up.

So now we face a predicament. We have full liver glycogen, and are now starting to accumulate fat mass via DNL because we are not depleting our liver glycogen through intense exercise or fasting. How do we combat this? Well, because our storage capacity for glycogen (carbohydrates) is so much smaller than our storage capacity for triacylglycerol (fats), carbohydrates regulate our metabolism, not fats!

Think of carbohydrate storage as the limiting factor. It is much much much easier to reach full liver glycogen capacity than it is to reach full triacylglycerol (fat) capacity. So naturally, you will reach glycogen saturation first, which shifts our body into primarily burning glucose/carbohydrates (if you eat more carbohydrates you have to burn more carbohydrates for fuel). The opposite is true when we limit carbohydrates…our metabolism switches to primarily burning fat for fuel. Thus, we have what is referred to as reciprocal oxidation (think of this as burning) of carbohydrates and fats for fuel (6, 7).

Now this brings us all the way back to that stupid “Kind” Protein Bar with its calorie breakdown of 19% protein, 64% fat and 17% carbohydrates. If we continually eat foods such as Kind bars, with relatively low protein and combinations of both carbohydrates and fats, we run into a serious problem. The macro nutrient breakdown of this “protein-bar” mimics a typical Standard American Diet (which has many different definitions, but for simplicity sake we can consider it a diet with both high carbohydrate and fat intakes). Since dietary carbohydrate intake is high, glucose and glycogen will be high and shift the body towards burning carbs (and shift the body away from burning fat). With low fat burning capabilities during this way of eating, any dietary fat you eat cannot get burned (remember the reciprocity of these two macro nutrients) so dietary fat tends to get stored as body fat! If we keep this pattern up we reach a dilemma known as obesity (abnormal or excessive fat accumulation).

Essentially, as fat mass continues to accumulate, it reaches a point where your body has no choice but to start burning fat at the same rate it is accumulating, even with tapped-out glycogen stores (6). So now, as you continue on this high carbohydrate and high fat diet, excess dietary carbohydrates are being readily stored as fat… and so is dietary fat!

We in the business call this energy toxicity (or the overfilling of energy stores). Basically, our fat cells become so stuffed, they can no longer take in any more carbohydrates or fat, causing a buildup of glucose and triglycerides (fats circulating in the blood). You may know this as high blood sugar/hyperglycemia and hyperlipidemia, respectively. As this process slowly takes over your body, you begin to to show symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by abdominal obesity (large amounts of visceral fat), insulin resistance (pre-diabetes), hypertension (high blood pressure), Hyperlipidemia (High LDL-bad cholesterol and low HDL-good cholesterol), and hyperglycemia(5,6). This starts to become very dangerous when your body runs out of room to store fat subcutaneously (underneath the skin), so it starts to store it viscerally (surrounding the organs). The slow build-up of visceral fat essentially leads up to full blown Type-2 diabetes and its various complications (6).

And just because you “look healthy” on the outside, and are not clinically diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes, doesn’t mean you are in the clear. Alarmingly enough, a very recent study found that only 12% of Americans are considered metabolically healthy which is characterized by having no signs of insulin resistance (7).

Now I am not a Medical Doctor nor am I Registered Dietitian so I am not telling you what to eat by any means. The point of this long-winded article was not to bash on Kind bars, but rather show you how misleading food labeling can be, and to give you some basic insight as to how your metabolism works to give you a tool in this fight. The main thing to takeaway (in my opinion) is that that fat and carbohydrates are burned reciprocally, with carbohydrates having a much more limited storage space.

So, to put this into practical sense, I suggest you start by being a bit more cognizant of what you are actually eating. Take a few minutes to read the nutrition label. My rule of thumb is if it has more than 3 ingredients, I am not eating it (and for the most part I am eating 1 ingredient whole foods…i.e. beef, eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, etc…). That Kind bar had 11 ingredients, to put things into perspective. Next, maybe try plugging some of your food into Dr. Naiman’s P:E Calculator and see how things stack up (you can use the Kind bar as a reference…just slowly work your way up to a better P:E ratio).

I am not getting into a diet debate here, but here are just a few examples of foods with various P:E . Take a look at what types of food have a high P:E and what foods have low P:E. What foods are found in your diet? What foods are missing from your diet?

A good estimation of where different foods fit on the P:E . Notice the distinction between the Standard American Diet and the typical Hunter-Gatherer diet. This image was taken from Dr. Naiman’s P:E ratio pg. 117.

I’ll leave you with this: Before you eat a piece of food…read the nutrition label, and imagine what you would look like in a year if you were only allowed to eat that single piece of food. Would you be happy with the way you would look and feel? More importantly…would you be metabolically healthy?

  1. “Hexane — An Effective Oil Extracting Agent.” Lab Pro Inc., labproinc.com/blog/chemicals-and-solvents-9/post/hexane-an-effective-oil-extracting-agent-33.
  2. Lusas, E W, and M N Riaz. “Soy Protein Products: Processing and Use.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 125, Mar. 1995, pp. 573s–580s., doi:10.1093/jn/125.3_Suppl.573S.
  3. Gerliani, Natela, et al. “Extraction of Protein and Carbohydrates from Soybean Meal Using Acidic and Alkaline Solutions Produced by Electro‐Activation.” Food Science & Nutrition, vol. 8, no. 2, 2020, pp. 1125–1138., doi:10.1002/fsn3.1399.
  4. “What Happens to Your Food After You Eat It?” North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN), www.gikids.org/files/documents/resources/Eat-E.pdf.
  5. Miesfeld, Roger L., and Megan M. McEvoy. Biochemistry. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  6. Naiman, Ted, and William Shewfelt. The P:E Diet: Leverage You Biology.
  7. Schwarz, J M, et al. “Short-Term Alterations in Carbohydrate Energy Intake in Humans. Striking Effects on Hepatic Glucose Production, De Novo Lipogenesis, Lipolysis, and Whole-Body Fuel Selection.” Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol. 96, no. 6, 1995, pp. 2735–2743., doi:10.1172/jci118342.
  8. Araújo, Joana, et al. “Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016.” Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, vol. 17, no. 1, 2019, pp. 46–52., doi:10.1089/met.2018.0105.

Post-Baccalaureate research assistant in the Molecular and Clinical Nutrition Lab at the National Institutes of Health