Food should be fast, convenient, and of course tasty. The food industry knows it and uses attractive food design, chemicals and new technologies to bring convenience products to the market.
And the business is booming. According to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the food industry produces one million tons of convenience products annually in Germany alone. The market research institute Statista estimates that the revenue of the biggest fast food products available in supermarkets will total €6 billion in 2019, whereas this figure was still under €4 billion in 2017. Last year, Germans spent an average of €4.65 per convenience product.
Convenience products are already popular among children and adolescents, as the Robert Koch Institute reported based on the results of a nationwide nutrition study (Fischer 2008). Girls aged 12 to 17 eat fast food nearly twice a week. Boys eat fast food even more frequently: 12 to 15-year-olds around three times a week and 16 to 17-year-olds as often as five times a week. The most popular fast foods are pizza, hamburgers and chips.
Only as good as the ingredients
“The problem in Germany is not only the consumption of convenience foods, but also that they are of poor quality”, explains Professor Gunther Hirschfelder, a cultural scientist at Universität Regensburg, in an article by journalist Stephan Fuhrer (Redaktionsnetz Deutschland, 2016).
The products contain inferior ingredients and very little fibre. Instead of using fresh foods, powders are often mixed in. They are cheaper but contain hardly any vitamins, minerals or omega-3 fatty acids. Added fats are hydrogenated to increase shelf life, resulting in trans fats. These are harmful to humans. They increase cholesterol levels and promote arteriosclerosis.
Philippa Ellwood from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and her team assume that the high saturated fat and trans fat content also plays a role in allergies. In 2013, the team asked 500,000 children and adolescents about their eating habits and allergy symptoms. The result: Those who consumed fast food three times a week had a higher incidence of asthma or severe asthma attacks. “If there is a causal relationship between fast food and allergy symptoms, our findings are highly significant for public health”, says Ellwood.
Eating with our eyes
The food industry also puts additives in convenience products to make them look more appetising, increase their shelf life and improve their taste. These are referred to as flavour enhancers, dyes or preservatives, depending on their function.
Around 300 additives are approved for use in food products in Europe.
For example, many instant soups and sauces, processed cheeses, mustards, pâtés and baked goods contain dyes. These include a range of substances such as Acid Yellow 23 (E102), Quinoline Yellow WS (E104) and Orange Yellow S (E110), which are already known potential triggers of allergic skin rashes and rhinitis, breathing problems, asthma and atopic dermatitis.
A South Korean research team (Park S 2016) also discovered that there was a high risk of atopic dermatitis in adults: Those who consumed convenience products more than four times a month had a 60 per cent higher risk of developing atopic dermatitis than those who ate traditional foods – in South Korea, these are mainly rice and kimchi, a dish made from lactic-acid fermented napa cabbage.
A recent review (Wang 2018) revealed that many studies have already identified a link between industrial food products and allergic diseases. Nevertheless, Wang and his team are calling for further studies in order to find out which specific ingredients and mechanisms in fast food have an impact on allergy risk.
Stay on the safe side
No, convenience products are not always unhealthy. It depends on the ingredients. When raw materials are added in powdered form and the list of ingredients is long, it’s better to leave the product on the shelf.
And if you do have to eat meals from a cardboard box or a tin, stick to the ones with more vegetables and less fat. You can also enjoy a fresh salad on the side or fruit for dessert.
Also keep in mind that hamburgers, pizza and other favourites are easy to make at home using fresh ingredients.
Ellwood P et al. Do fast foods cause asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema? Global findings from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) Phase Three. Thorax 2013;68(4):351-60.