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What Processed Food Looks Like during Digestion—Of Course It’s Not Pretty [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you ever wondered how your body handled all those packaged ramen noodles you ate during college, this video’s for you. Stefani Bardin, a TEDxManhattan fellow, wants to learn how digestion differs between food chock full of preservatives and food that can actually go bad in a day.

To create this video, she and her collaborator, Braden Kuo of Harvard University, had two volunteers swallow a camera pill along with their meals (which included Gatorade and Gummi bears). The camera—here, called an M2A pill (for “mouth to anus”)—produced a stop-motion video down to the small intestine. Such cameras have limited medical uses, but boy, they sure do create a fun “Fantastic Voyage”-like experience. The video’s actual alimentary angle begins at the two-minute mark.

Next on the list ought to be hot dogs, considering all the chemicals in them.

UPDATED 2/24/12: I spoke with Bardin and Kuo today and made changes above to note that they had two volunteers eat the pills, which cost $600 each. They also mentioned that, when the subjects swapped meals, the noodles looked the same, suggesting that chewing (or lack thereof) was not responsible for the appearance of the noodles. They only have preliminary data from the other pill and would need more volunteers to determine whether the apparent slower digestion of processed foods has any physiological significance.

Philip Yam About the Author: Philip Yam is the managing editor of He is the author of The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting and Other Prion Diseases. Follow on Twitter @philipyam.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. markjkram 9:05 pm 02/17/2012

    wow nice post thanks i learn so much from your post

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  2. 2. 11:09 pm 02/17/2012

    Mmm, butane. My fave.

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  3. 3. mikosteph 12:05 am 02/19/2012

    A very non-scientific and almost irrelevant study unless it is backed with data. I am not sure you are really educated in the scientific method. Your comments clear show you are biased before starting – your references to petroleum byproducts is a good example. You wanted to show somehow how bad the Ramen noodles were but you had already decided they were. Try making your home made so that they can eaten by somebody just 1 week later. Just because a food ingredient is artificial doesn’t mean its harmful. The wheat that made your homemade was a product of thousands of years of human meddling and natural food ingredients doesn’t mean safe. Food is chemicals and some of these can be toxic. what about what was absorbed into the blood – if you did a metanomics analysis of the absorbed nutrients you could give a better picture – a more scientifically relevant picture. Sorry to be so harsh but I am sick and tired of this pseudo science …and by the way I attended Harvard too.

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  4. 4. Zak44 10:32 am 02/19/2012

    Mikosteph: Isn’t trying to “show how bad the ramen noodles are” but “already deciding they are” pretty much the same as formulating a hypothesis and designing an experiment to test it?

    PS: I would have thought one of the benefits of a Harvard education would be the ability to write in clear English, without making basic errors in usage, grammar, and proper punctuation.

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  5. 5. Hendrik1936 1:25 pm 02/19/2012

    Mikosteph is on to something important in his critique, and Yam should address it, either by removing the video or writing more of a disclaimer rather than the noncommittal, gee whiz stance he took. My partner brought this video to my attention. I was reminded of it as I went to have a Ramen noodle lunch, and so I watched it. My conclusion? It’s very slick, even more biased, full of “loaded” language, and leaves the viewer with far less than met the eye. My skepticism only increased as I pursued the url’s embedded in Yam’s introduction. Re-think your posting, Mr. Yam.

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  6. 6. mmclean 5:08 pm 02/19/2012

    If you are going to describe one of the ingredients as related to the butane used in cigarette lighters (sorry, I didn’t get the exact wording), why not also state that the salt in one or both samples is related to chlorine, a poisonous gas used in chemical warfare. Would that not be just as relevant?

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  7. 7. scilo 1:56 am 02/20/2012

    The comments are easier to digest then is the video.
    Chemical food isn’t what’s for dinner. Harvard or no.
    Wheat is highly manipulated, probably why so many people are now allergic to it. Corn neither resembles maize in structure or nutrition. Maize was a main food group, our corn is barely digestible.
    Improving nature is a fools errand.
    If you eat of the wilds, you might discover taste is a whole body function, not just the mouth.
    You might also discover that processed foods will make you very sick if you’re not acclimated to the poisons.
    Harvard doesn’t teach you everything, only what you paid them to tell you. That, with a corporate bias these days.
    Knowledge is an untested power. Wisdom is the test. I challenge any and all to put these things to a test. Eat of nature for two or three months, then compare that with a national brand. See how you feel. Making things up in our heads is not real science.
    Real science, like God, yoga, Vedas, life, nature, atoms, magic, etc. cannot be truly comprehended. That would imply an end to our road, then what?

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  8. 8. grbobf 9:29 am 02/24/2012

    Ms. Stefani Bardin obviously is NOT OBJECTIVE given her commments regarding the “processed” food “treatment”. First-ever clinical trial to look at the impact of processed food or whole food on the human body? Really???? The “M2A” has a battery with a life of 8 hours (to allow 8 hrs of video recording) and Ms. Bardin says this allows for the creation of “… a stop-motion video from the mouth to the top of the small intestine.” Why not the remainder of the GI tract (at least until the battery “died”)- far from “mouth-2-anus”. We only saw evidence that the person(s) consuming the “processed” ramen noodles DID NOT CHEW them hardly at all – apparently swallowed them “whole”. In this “clinical” trial, 2 subjects each receiving both treatments (“acting as their own control”), there are how many error degrees-of-freedom- any more than 1? Who’s trying to kid who here…. perhaps, its Ms. Bardin who’s kidding herself. This belongs in/on UN-Scientific American (definitely NOT Scientific American)!

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