Eat Right: Love your junk food? Here are the ingredients that are wrecking your gut health

Increased consumption of junk food, particularly in children and young adults, has become a public health challenge with a global incidence of around 70 per cent. The ready-to-eat processed and preserved junk foods are fast replacing traditional foods, thereby affecting the health status of the people.

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Junk foods, interchangeably used as fast foods, refer to readily available, nutrient-deficient, and usually inexpensive foods. High in calories, salt, and saturated fats, junk food is associated with many serious health problems, including diabetes, obesity, strokes, heart attacks, dementia, and even cancer. Also, the absence of iron, calcium and dietary fibre in these foods aggravates their harmful effects. Common examples of junk food may include carbonated drinks, chips, desserts, chocolates, canned foods, and other processed and packaged foods.

What makes Junk Food Dangerous?

As you consume junk foods, the high glycemic index of refined flour/maida, added sweetening agents, and emulsifiers (especially palm oil) present in these foods flood the bloodstream with glucose without any nutrients, fibre, or phyto-chemicals.

Further, high amounts of acrylamides and advanced glycation end-products present in baked foods can cause an increase in the glycoproteins in the tissues.

The harmful effects of junk food are attributed to the common ingredients that are used to prepare processed as well as junk foods and how they affect the gut microbiota.

Microbiota refers to the community of trillions of microorganisms (most of them are bacteria), and viruses, fungi, and protozoa (in small proportions) that inhabit the human gastrointestinal tract in a definite ratio or proportion. The gut microbiota or flora balance is important as it helps maintain digestive health and regulate the immune system. Also, any disruption in gut microbiota may lead to multiple health problems such as luminal diseases irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases, allergic diseases, metabolic diseases (like obesity and diabetes), and neuro-developmental illnesses.

Now, let’s discuss how the common ingredients present in junk foods can individually participate in disrupting our gut health.

White Flour

Studies suggest that replacing refined grain flour with whole grain flour has positive effects on gut microbiota and the acute innate immune response among other benefits. It is due to the fact that refined wheat flour losses all of its fibre, vitamins, and minerals during processing, which is associated with an increased prevalence of constipation and nutritional disorders, and digestive disturbances.

Also, the high glycemic index, high refined carbohydrate content, and low cereal fibre present in refined flour or maida are strongly linked to the prevalence of metabolic syndrome.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

Introduced in 1970, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is America’s worst gift to the world. A widely-used sucrose substitute in packaged and processed foods carbonated beverages, fruit drinks, canned fruits, baked goods, jams and jellies, and even in dairy products, HFCS found favor among manufacturers for its higher sweetness and low price.

But unfortunately, HFCS is an unhealthy alternative associated with cardiovascular diseases and problems related to gut health. Talking about gut health, excessive fructose (especially in refined sugar and fruit juice) intake alters the gut microbiota composition and impairs intestinal barriers function through a series of inflammatory reactions. The inflammatory reactions triggered by high-dose fructose intake also have a significant impact on the shaping and maintaining of intestinal flora homeostasis. It is a concern in the view that intestinal barrier disruption caused due to dysbiosis or altered microbiota is associated with an increased risk of diseases related to gut health and autoimmunity.


A high salt diet like junk food may lead to decreased digestive enzymes excretion from the host. It may not only change cell components, biological processes, and molecular function in duodenal contents but may also alter the composition of gut microbiota. This, in turn, may lead to a higher abundance of Ruminococcus and Lachnospiraceae, but a lower abundance of Lactobacillus.

The decreased abundance of Lactobacillus spp. due to HSD intake is significant as it is associated with different inflammatory diseases due to compromised gut permeability and immune homeostasis.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is the preferred choice of almost all manufacturers of processed foods because it is saturated, and foods processed with saturated fats have longer shelf lives. Palm oil is popular among manufacturers of processed foods because it is saturated fat, and the reason that foods processed using saturated fats have longer shelf lives.

However, it has a dark side as well in terms of health hazards. Researchers have found that higher saturated fatty acids present in palm oil make it an unhealthy choice as excessive intake of these fats is known to have a detrimental effect on intestinal microbiota.

It is an important finding as the intestinal microbiome is also involved in modulating the risk of several chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

In the Nutshell

With no nutrition and multiple health hazards to offer, junk foods ask for a complete rejection, especially for children of growing age. Taste is a trap when it comes to junk foods. And, the increased intake of junk foods reflects the growing prevalence of different metabolic disorders. Remember, there’s no alternative to home-cooked fresh food. So, try to avoid junk foods as much as possible as some outcomes are irreversible.

Manjari Chandra is a consultant, functional nutrition and nutritional medicine, Manjari Wellness, New Delhi. Her column appears every fortnight

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