Western Diets: A Multifaceted Overview

-Dr. Prithvi Sanjeevkumar Gaur,Intern, Smt. Kashibai Navale Medical College and General Hospital, Pune.



A western diet includes food rich in proteins derived from fatty, domesticated and processed meats, saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup, with an associated reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables.The western diet originated and was readily adopted worldwide due to its quick availability in a world always short on time. While meeting the ever-increasing population’s demands, consumers’ health may be at risk. Increased consumption of the western diet, apart from causing apparent health disorders like obesity and hypertension, also affects the human race’s gut microbiome and reproductive health. A large majority of the fast-food chains originated in the West to meet the needs of many commuters, travellers, and daily wage workers. A large amount of pre-prepared food was required to allow for rapid service. Subsequently, preservatives in semi-prepared food emerged to allow for a longer shelf-life and protect the food from bacteria and yeast. Fast-food chains’ most commonly used preservatives include sodium benzoate, sorbic acid, butylated hydroxy anisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).1 Packaged food, canned jams, pickles, and flour contain these preservatives.

Preservatives: Use and Effects            Preservatives are of various types and are added to allow longevity for food consumption while retaining its flavour. The different types of preservatives are listed in Figure 2.   

Sodium benzoate is a bacteriostatic and fungistatic preservative. It acts by allowing the absorption of benzoic acid into the cell. Once in the cell, it reduces the anaerobic fermentation of glucose by phosphofructokinase sharply if the intracellular pH falls below five and inhibits the microorganisms from thriving.2Sorbic acid inhibits spore germination, outgrowth, and vegetative cell division with the help of its enhanced activity at reduced pH levels or by H+ concentration mediated spore germination inhibition in the early stages of its life cycle.3BHA and BHT are synthetic monocyclic phenolic compounds having antioxidant properties. Antioxidants decrease the oxidation rate and are usually added to food containing fat. Hence, they are used to maintain the palatability of preserved food.4    

            Preservatives undergo rigorous testing before being approved for usage. They are usually harmless but may be detrimental to human health. Benzoates reacting with vitamin C form benzene, a carcinogen, and may also be associated with asthma, allergies, hyperactivity, and skin rashes.5,6 Urticaria and contact dermatitis are often seen as sequelae to chronic intake of sorbates.5 Nitrates convert into nitrites in the human body and may react with hemoglobin to produce methemoglobin which causes dizziness and loss of consciousness, especially in the younger age group. Nitrites combining with proteins or being cooked at high heat may form carcinogenic N-nitrosamines.7 An association between nitrates and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Type 2 Diabetes has also been noticed.8            The adverse effects of chemical preservatives can be avoided by shifting towards using natural preservatives. These include oils from various plant sources like sunflower and copaiba, chitosan, alginate, ascorbic acid, turmeric, clove extract, and mustard seeds. These contain polyphenols (phenolic acids, flavonoids, stilbenes, and lignans) with antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.9, 10Understanding Global Food Consumption            The regional food people consume depends on six factors: health, emotions, price and availability, society and culture, environment and politics, and marketing and commercials.11 Consequently, the climate in the temperate regions allows for the reaping and sowing of only a handful of vegetables and fruits, including pumpkin, strawberries, and blueberries, due to the severe weather conditions. However, the icy weather conditions allow for consuming diets rich in red meat, potatoes, rice, and alcohol.12 Contrarily, tropical countries record a vast diversity in agricultural products, including rice, wheat, pulses, sorghum, coconuts, mangoes, spinach, melons, and lime.13 India, a tropical country, reaps these seasonal fruits and vegetables, reducing the need for consuming food ridden with preservatives.            Due to globalization, various types of food are made available in every corner of the world.14 Bananas grown exclusively in tropical countries are now consumed in multiple countries, including temperate zones.13 Countries having isolated locations or those away from the primary source of diverse agricultural produce record the highest use of foreign crops.13 The availability of fresh produce compared to canned and frozen food allows for a significant global dietary change.            Studies have shown that consumers are more likely to buy preserved food once they understand its mechanisms. Poor understanding of food additives, usually due to inadequate or distorted dissemination of information, leads to higher risk perception.15Conclusion            Practicing the proverb ‘Knowledge is Power”, instead of fearing and fear-mongering the consumption of preserved food, one should understand its use comprehensively. Preservation of food has been rampantly practiced for eons. It is imperative as it allows for perennial nutrition for the global population. Policies should be built around using natural preservatives and improving food consumption and dietary habits worldwide. References

1.         Seetaramaiah K et al. Preservatives in Food Products – Review. International Journal of Pharmaceutical & Biological Archives 2, 583–599 (2011).2.         Pongsavee, M. Effect of Sodium Benzoate Preservative on Micronucleus Induction, Chromosome Break, and Ala40Thr Superoxide Dismutase Gene Mutation in Lymphocytes. Biomed Res Int 2015, 103512 (2015).3.         Sofos J N et al. Mode of action of sorbic acid on bacterial cells and spores. International Journal of Food Microbiology 3, 1–17 (1986).4.         Inetianbor J et al. Effects of food additives and preservatives on man-a review. Asian Journal of Science and Technology 6, 18 (2015).5.         Sharma, D. S. Food Preservatives and their harmful effects. 5, 2 (2015).6.         N H K H Jha et al. A Study on Consumer Awareness, Safety Perceptions & Practices About Food Preservatives and Flavoring Agents Used in Packed /Canned Foods from South India. National Journal of Community Medicine 4, 402–406 (2013).7.         World Health Organization. Food irradiation : a technique for preserving and improving the safety of food. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/38544 (1988).8.         Artificial preservatives and their harmful effects: looking toward nature for safer alternatives | international journal of pharmaceutical sciences and research. https://ijpsr.com/bft-article/artificial-preservatives-and-their-harmful-effects-looking-toward-nature-for-safer-alternatives/ (2013).9.         Beya M M, et al. Plant-Based Phenolic Molecules as Natural Preservatives in Comminuted Meats: A Review. Antioxidants (Basel) 10, 263 (2021).10.       Md. Sharif Z I et al. Review on methods for preservation and natural preservatives for extending the food longevity. Chemical Engineering Research Bulletin 19, 145 (2017).11.       Guiné R P F et al. Study about Food Choice Determinants According to Six Types of Conditioning Motivations in a Sample of 11,960 Participants. Foods 9, 888 (2020).12.       Notarnicola B et al. Environmental impacts of food consumption in Europe. Journal of Cleaner Production 140, 753–765 (2017).13.       Khoury C K et al. Origins of food crops connect countries worldwide. Proc Biol Sci 283, 20160792 (2016).14.       Kearney J. Food consumption trends and drivers. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 365, 2793–2807 (2010).

15.       Zhong Y et al. Effects of Food-Additive-Information on Consumers’ Willingness to Accept Food with Additives. Int J Environ Res Public Health 15, 2394 (2018).

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