The consumption of white foods has increased manifold among Indians in recent times. White foods are those that are processed and refined, like refined wheat flour, white rice, white bread, white pasta, and simple sugars like white refined sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup. Bakery and condiment industries, which use refined wheat flour and white sugar as main ingredients, have grown exponentially.
A report by Expert Market Research stated that the Indian bakery market valued nearly $7.6 billion in 2020. It is estimated to grow 8.5 per cent between 2021 and 2026 to reach $12.39 billion. According to the report, this growth will be majorly supported by the thriving biscuits and cookies industry across the country with 72 per cent of the total sales coming from them.
Most common white foods and their impact on health:
Bakery products: Derived from refined flour, bakery products have invaded India’s breakfast menu at a large scale. White bread, cookies, cakes, bread-butter, bread-jam, white bread sandwiches are common in many households. Refined bread flour is obtained by processing whole grain – removing fiber dense bran and germ of the grain. These parts contain most of the vitamins and minerals too. The resultant product lacks nutritional value and is associated with weight gain, glucose intolerance, and heart diseases, many research studies have shown.
A study that tracked the daily diet of nearly 2,200 participants reported > 2 kg weight loss and >2 cm reduction in waist circumference in those with reduced white bread consumption.
A cross-sectional analysis involving 1,000 participants reported that the modern dietary pattern with high intake of fast food, croissants, white bread and cheese was inversely associated with poor glycaemic control.
White sugar or refined sugar. A Statista Research Department report showed Indians consumed 27 million metric tons of white sugar in 2020. This consumption remained unchanged over five years.
Refined sugar provides ‘empty calorie’ in the form of simple glucose and no other nutrients. Simple glucose gets absorbed in the bloodstream very quickly and raises blood sugar that leads to glucose intolerance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, some forms of cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, depression, and dementia among others. Moreover, white sugar is used as a preservative in multiple food products that make it impossible to avoid. Apart from table sugar, brown sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, jelly, and maple syrup are also part of white sugar group.
Evidence has consistently linked large consumption of refined sugar, particularly in the form of sugary drinks, with obesity and abdominal fat accumulation that leads to diabetes and heart diseases.
A 2015 cohort study involving around 2,600 participants observed that regular sugar-sweetened beverage consumption was associated with higher risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, particularly in overweight and obese individuals.
Drinking sugar has become a common practice among today’s teenagers and office-goers.
A large study involving around 4,35,000 participants showed that sugars were directly associated with greater risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma, small intestine cancer and pleural cancer.
A study by the National Institute of Health, UK, which investigated the link between dementia and high sugar consumption, concluded that higher glucose levels might be a risk factor for dementia, even among people without diabetes.
White table salt. Along with pink, blue, and black salts, white table salt is essential to health. But it produces negative health outcomes such as high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, and osteoporosis when consumed in excess. Almost all processed and packaged food products like chips, crackers, and wafers use salt as a preservative.
White rice. It is the most common staple in India across all regions. White rice is the polished and refined form of whole grain – lacks fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. White rice is not a bad food unless consumed in large quantities. However, it doesn’t provide any vital nutrients except simple glucose. White rice produces the same health outcome as refined wheat flour.
In many Indian households, vegetable curries are incomplete without white potatoes. Inherently, white potato isn’t a bad choice; in fact, it’s a great source of several crucial nutrients such as potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. However, this vegetable results in weight gain and negative health outcomes when frequently consumed as fried, salted or mashed form in large quantities.
Not all white foods are bad
Some white foods are beneficial for overall health. Few examples include – cauliflower, onion, garlic, radish, mushroom, cashews, sesame seeds, white beans, white fish, lean chicken, low fat milk, unsweetened yogurt, white eggs, and coconut meat.
The standard guideline while making food choices for a healthier lifestyle shouldn’t be dependent solely on colour because nutrition value is independent of colour.
Healthier swaps for unhealthy white foods
White bread can be replaced with whole or multi grain breads, oats that contain more fiber, important micronutrients. Instead of white sugar, satisfy your sweet tooth with fruits. Fruit sugar is also simple sugar but naturally occurring. Additionally, higher content of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants in fruits produces positive health outcomes.
White and other salts can be replaced with herbs and spices to bring the desired flavour. White rice can be swapped with brown rice with more fiber content. Research has shown that brown rice has much less impact on raising blood glucose level in comparison to white rice. White potato can be used occasionally with more focus in consuming green, leafy and other colourful vegetables.
No food is absolutely good or bad. However, there is ample evidence that refined versions of foods are producing more harm than good. Additionally, a healthy dietary habit considers quantity of foods too. The golden rule to lead a healthier lifestyle is based on moderation, mostly eating healthy and enjoying white foods or junks occasionally.
Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)