Why you should not cook frozen food in the air-fryer or pick up the diet chidwa packet

Shikha Singh, 28, decided to turn over a new leaf to lose weight and beat back other blood markers that were high on a routine test. To transition into a healthy lifestyle, she chose diet versions of her favourite indulgence — Diet colas, diet versions of chidwa, roasted snacks and zero calorie ready-to-eats. For home cooking, she chose air-frying over pan-frying. Yet, three months down the line, there was no improvement in her readings. That’s because what she thought were healthy choices ended up not being so healthy after all.

“What most people do not realise is that in the end, processed foods remain processed foods. You are just replacing components, not deleting them really. So, to minimise one type of fat or calories, you are adding another ingredient to maintain texture and flavour. This means you are adding another component in processing. Any form of ultra-processing hurts our gut health. The packaged item may be zero sugar but to recreate the desired satiety level means adding that extra ingredient or additive,” says Dr Priyanka Rohatgi, Chief Nutritionist, Apollo Hospital.

What you may may not know about air-frying and roasting at high heat. They produce age molecules

The packaged foods industry always claims that its low-calorie products are puffed, roasted and baked. But these are done at high heat forming AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products). In layman’s terms, this means that at high heat, proteins, fats and carbohydrates fight with each other to yield complex products that are toxic for the body. “Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are produced when sugar molecules attach themselves to protein or lipid molecules. Now the body can handle some amount of AGEs but daily exposure to high levels is bad for health. They are bio-markers for ageing and the development, or worsening, of many degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease,” adds Dr Rohatgi.

Some AGEs are produced as a result of normal metabolism but in excess, they can become pathogenic. In scientific terms, they promote “oxidative stress and inflammation by binding with cell surface receptors or cross-linking with body proteins, altering their structure and function.”

Common replacements and their toxic potential

Your food may be low calorie but by adding sodium and sugar additives, the burden of sinfulness goes up. How so? A lot of packaged and frozen foods contain potato starch powder or Maltodextrin. It is fairly tasteless, quickly dissolves in water and is used as an additive to improve the texture, flavour and shelf life of foods. “You may argue that the powder comes from natural products. But what many don’t realise is that it then undergoes processing. It impacts gut health by enabling bacteria to stick to cells lining the intestines. Maltodextrin also has an adverse effect on blood sugar, ranging between 95 and 136 on the glycaemic index. Table sugar itself has a glycaemic value of 65. So it is just as much a threat to diabetics. Having too many foods layered with Maltodextrin may actually cause your blood sugar to rise. It is sugary and works like cocaine. Your threshold for it goes up. Your micro-nutrients are not absorbed properly because sugar will be worked on earlier,” says Dr Rohatgi.

“At high heat, potato starch produces Acrylamides, which are carcinogenic substances that result in weird cancers. Acrylamides are formed during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, roasting, and baking. It’s for this reason that you should not air-fry frozen foods at all. Cooking conservatively with a little bit of fat is better. Fat is not always the criminal it is made out to be,” advises she.

In fact, there’s enough research to show that zero-calorie foods made with fat substitutes and artificial sweeteners interfere with our body’s metabolism and actually lead to weight gain. “When you drink diet soda, it is mimicking the flavour of real soda. Its sweetness primes the body to receive calories. So when the caloric load is not enough, your body gets confused, and triggers your hunger hormones, sending you running after some snacks or bites to make up for the deficit. Unknown to you, processed foods are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). You should cut down on sugar and salt rather than substitutes,” adds Dr Rohatgi.

Stay away from diet soda, sweeteners and the diet chidwa

Sweeteners could be safe when ingested in extremely low amounts. But they are not. Besides, a report in the September 17, 2014, issue of the journal Nature proved that three common sweeteners — saccharin, sucralose and aspartame — can raise glucose levels, possibly by changing the composition of intestinal bacteria. This study was conducted by Johns Hopkins University. “According to standard guidelines, aspartame should not be given to children below 16 years and pregnant women. But this is the group that is happily getting addicted to artificially sweetened products. Food grade phosphoric acid, which is used as an ingredient in foods and beverages, impacts bone and dental health,” says Dr Rohatgi.

Often we buy imported snacks or pick them up from duty-free shops while returning from international trips. “What many users do not realise is that they use hydrogenated palm oil, which is bad fat but guarantees a good shelf life,” says Dr Rohatgi. And should you delude yourself into believing that the diet chidwa or the diet bhel is safe, please read the food label closely. “Each 100 gm packet has 30 per cent fat as it lends crispiness,” she adds. Often the industrial mechanisms during manufacturing are also suspect. “Food prepared in stainless steel is safe. But if the vessels have traces of heavy metal, then they could leach into the food,” she warns.

Why we cannot trust the food app either

For children, too, simply cooked meals at home appear dull in front of sugar and salt-laden, fried and processed foods that reach them within 30-40 minutes. “The results of a survey conducted by Rakuten Insight (August 2021) on Indian food delivery apps suggest that most respondents ordered once or twice a week. Among those between 25 and 34 years old, the frequency of ordering each day was higher compared to other age groups. Obesity, self-esteem issues, and acute and chronic illnesses are a few consequences of regular intake of unhealthy junk/processed/ordered food. Given the fact that children do not understand food variants and their impact on health, they are attracted to colourful and varied food items available in the market,” says Dr Swathi Chikkala, Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences & Convener, Women Empowerment Cell, GITAM (Deemed University), Visakhapatnam.

“How many of us know that a single fast-food meal could add 160-310 extra kilocalories to the daily caloric intake of teenagers and younger children? The unhealthy food intake, with many additives and preservatives, results in a lack of vitamins such as A and C and minerals such as magnesium and calcium, leading to deficiency diseases and osteoporosis, as well as dental caries due to higher sugar intake,” adds she.

A survey has found that eating processed and packaged food four to six times a week results in sleep disturbances; lowers mathematics and reading skills; ups chances of constipation and addiction to junk food; impairs academic performance because of high sugar levels resulting in mood swings and lack of alertness; affects physical and mental health; impacts self-esteem, social relationships and hyperactivity due to lack of essential fatty acids. “In 10 years, this is set to double as the first, second and third generations in a family are all gradually favouring food ordered regularly. Famous chef Jamie Oliver, in a TED talk on ‘Obesity and Food’, stated how children are destined to have a shorter life span owing to their parents’ food choices. This only substantiates the need to pause and reconsider our choices,” says she.

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