A ton of the ultraprocessed foods we snack on were created by a process that can be described as "pre-digestion," which makes it all the less filling and all the more addictive.
As CNN reports, many of the most processed grain-based foods we eat, from burger buns and pizza crusts to potato chips and puddings, were made in a manner that is quite similar to a mama bird pre-chewing her baby's food — except in this case, it's as if she digested it before regurgitating it to her offspring.
"The bulk of what is extracted is starch slurry, a milky mixture of starch and water, but we also have extracted proteins and fibers," a video from the European Starch Industry Association explains. "Roughly half of the starch slurry goes to produce starch-based sugars and other derivatives. Those are created by hydrolysis, a process similar to human digestion."
Although starch slurries aren't at all unusual in the world of the culinary arts, what sets these apart is that rather than using cornstarch or similar ingredients, mass-produced food manufacturers make theirs' by breaking a given raw food down to its molecular level and then pounding it, along with food coloring, emulsifiers, and fake flavors, with industrial machines.
"It’s an illusion of food," Chris van Tulleken, a virology expert, associate professor at University College London, and author of a 2023 book on ultraprocessed foods, told CNN. "But it’s really expensive and difficult for a food company to make food that is real and whole, and much cheaper for food companies to destroy real foods, turn them in molecules, and then reassemble those to make anything they want."
Because these pre-digested foodstuffs don't require the same kind of gastrointestinal breakdown that occurs when we eat whole foods, they go down much easier. As some experts argue, that's not how the digestive process is supposed to go.
According to preventative medicine expert David Katz, who founded the True Health Initiative nonprofit dedicated to "cutting through the noise" of modern diet talk, these kinds of foods are essentially bypassing the "stretch receptor effect in the stomach," which tells you when you're full.
"Before the stretch receptors can even tell you, 'Hey, we’ve had enough,' you’ve put down twice as many calories as you need," Katz told CNN.
You read that right: there's a scientific reason for the mindless daze you go into when eating an entire bag of chips in one sitting, because it was essentially designed to make you feel that way.
Nearly three-quarters of the food in the US is processed, per estimates from Northeastern University researchers — which puts into perspective how much pre-digested food we may be eating every day.