Factory food is everywhere, even where you least expect it. Six months ago, ten Knack and Knack Weekend journalists decided to eat only unprocessed food for a month. What insights have stuck?
Can food from a tube, container, bag, can or box with a number of incomprehensible ingredients do any harm? Our gut indicated yes, but of course it’s not a reliable source. In the name of journalism, ten colleagues of Crack and Crack weekend their body for an experiment.
The rule for our test month was as follows: we could eat and drink anything as long as it was completely homemade or in conditions close to homemade food. For bread, we could choose between kneading and baking ourselves, or visiting an artisan baker who works with pure ingredients. Making olive oil and coffee ourselves was a bridge too far, we still had time to work. So we decided to always choose the most traditional option, preferably bought directly from the olive farmer or coffee roaster. Ultra-processed products were of course off limits. Chicken nuggets, supermarket bread, chocolate bars, prepared spreads, chips, cornflakes, supermarket sausages, veggie burgers from a packet: for a month we ignored all these products and put on the kitchen apron ourselves.
Our experiment was not scientific research, one month is too short for that and our group of test subjects is too small. Processes in a body are also affected by more than food alone: factors such as environment, exercise and stress also play a role. So not a study, but a case study to put the theme on the map. We were supervised by doctors Staf Henderickx and Servaas Bingé because we wanted to know if avoiding processed foods leads to detectable physical changes.
Our body’s factory
You might be thinking: I already eat healthy, right? Organic bread from the supermarket, a jar of tapenade from the fridge… Unfortunately, around seventy percent of the contents of supermarkets consist of ultra-processed food. Products that you wouldn’t expect have also rolled off the factory line. On average, supermarket hummus contains 12 ingredients, which can even add up to 21. And that, while fresh hummus just consists of chickpeas, lemon, garlic, tahini and salt. A bowl of peeled shrimp? Also an industrial product filled with preservatives. Canned tomatoes? Chances are that additives such as sugar were added. Crazy marketers also make a contribution. Eighty percent of the campaigns in advertising brochures aim to get you to buy industrially produced food. That translates to our plate, every day.
When looking for information on hyper-processed food, it quickly becomes clear that Big Food is not so innocent. After all, doctors and scientists have been sounding the alarm internationally for some time because an excess of ‘highly processed food’ is linked to various diseases, such as diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and all forms of cancer. Our test subjects also experienced what factory food does to a body.
The weight doesn’t lie
Research by Kevin Hall from 2019 already showed that processed food makes people fat, even after just two weeks. Although a homemade cake contains the same nutritional values as a factory version, the cake rolled by a factory belt ensures a higher calorie intake. Our experiment also showed that: on average, the weight showed 1.78 kg less. The weight lost was also unhealthy abdominal fat around the organs. However, cookies were not out of the question as long as they were homemade. And our homemade chocolate spread was so delicious that it ended up on the sandwich almost every day.
Better in our skin
There are also a few cases that are worth mentioning. For example, one of our test subjects was on the verge of developing diabetes. After a month without processed food, his insulin resistance and risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease dropped significantly. Mentally, this participant also felt much better after the experiment. Another test subject has suffered from migraines since childhood and during the test month had fewer severe attacks than usual. The difference was so remarkable that even months after the experiment he still eats as much fresh food as possible.
Thanks to the blood and urine tests, we know that cutting out factory food for a month reduces the amount of heavy metals in our body. The amount of mercury in the body of all subjects decreased significantly. In addition to eating fish, glucose-fructose syrup also appears to be a shortcut to mercury. Let it be an ingredient that can often be found in factory foods. The average measured amount of cadmium and arsenic was also halved. The most important advice health experts give to reduce exposure to heavy metals is to eat a varied diet. This is difficult to reconcile with processed food, as it usually consists of the same ingredients: fat, sugar, salt and modified starch.
How scary are E numbers?
Of course, not all E numbers are culprits, but sometimes additives turn out to be less harmless than they seem. For example, titanium dioxide (E171) has been banned since August 2022. This additive only fulfilled an aesthetic role, namely whitening products. The benefits were assessed to outweigh the potential health risks. Laboratory studies and animal experiments have shown that the substance can cause DNA damage. Watchdogs like Test purchase also calls for a ban on other substances, such as silicon dioxide (E551), especially in products for children. We haven’t heard the last of it yet.
Barbara Creemers, Federal Member of Parliament responsible for Groen en Buurderij in Genk, wrote a statement on the issue of factory food with ‘Change the world, start in your kitchen’. Half a year later, she is just as excited: ‘I see your experiment and your file as a game changer. It confirms the feeling that factory food is not healthy and requires research and legislation on the subject. The file was published in the period of the launch of the proposal to reduce the VAT on fruit and vegetables from 6 to 0. I see it as a good one-two punch. Putting the harmful consequences of an excess of factory food on paper shows how important it is to make healthy food available to everyone. Reducing VAT is already a first step.’
‘On a personal level, it has ensured that I always put a snack pack in my rucksack: I won’t leave the house without dates and nuts for the time being. This way I won’t be tempted to buy chips or chocolate from a vending machine on the road. I also found it very interesting that you didn’t spend more money. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive.’
‘What I also remembered is your message that food connects people. It is not for nothing that our holidays revolve around cooking and eating together. I dream of a future where healthy food, collective food initiatives and innovative food plans from the government are the norm.’