More than 70% of America’s packaged food is ultra-processed — and it’s a big problem

The food supply in the US is dominated by ultra-processed foods which are almost always high in energy, saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

Avoid ultra-processed foods, physicians warn. Image credits: FDA.

Unhealthy processed food

For every 10 calories someone in the US eats, 8 come from store-bought foods and beverages (packaged and unpackaged). The ready-to-eat food market plays a crucial role in the US, and it also plays a crucial role in the development of obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Time and time again, studies have shown that processed foods (and particularly, ultra-processed foods) are dangerous to human health. Not only do they make you fat, but they also increase the risk of many serious conditions, including cancer and diabetes — and yet, Americans can’t have enough of them.

“The US packaged food and beverage supply is large, heterogeneous, highly processed, and generally unhealthy,” the new study reads.

Scientists analyzed 230,156 products, finding that 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks and more were ultra-processed. When they looked at the largest 25 manufacturers, a whopping 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.

Scientists also ranked foods based on their healthfulness, using a ranking system developed in Australia that ranks foods from 0.5 stars (unhealthiest) to 5 stars (healthiest) The Health Star Rating system scores packaged foods, offering consumers a quick look at the nutritional profile of packaged foods — something which can be difficult to assess in our day to day lives.

What’s ultra-processed anyway?

A decision we’ve all had to make countless times — what did you choose? Image credits: US Air Force.

The way we eat has changed substantially in the past few decades.  When early dietary guidelines were compiled and published in the first half of the last century, the vast majority of foods was sold as ingredients to be combined and consumed in the form of dishes or meals, or eat as it is. But after the 1950s, things started to change. More and more, we had access to pre-packaged, branded, and ready-to-eat (or drink) food. This was seen as more convenient and became increasingly prominent in high-income countries. But not long after that, it became clear that foods purchased this way aren’t healthy at all.

Although processed foods don’t need to be unhealthy, in practice, they almost always are. This is why the NOVA classification for food was devised, to help people understand what’s processed and what’s not. Here are the main categories:

  • unprocessed or minimally processed foods (think seeds, fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc);
  • processed culinary ingredients (flour, butter, vegetable oils, etc);
  • processed foods (relatively simple foods prepared with 2-3 ingredients — think canned beans or sugared nuts);
  • ultra-processed foods (complex foods that typically have many ingredients including sugar, oils, fats, salt, stabilizers, and preservatives — think foods like ice cream, cakes, sodas, burgers, sausages, nuggets, pastries, energy bars, and many many more).

Ultra-processed foods are unhealthy no matter where you look but compared to other countries, the US version is even worse, because it is generally processed with a higher sugar and sodium content, the study reports.

While the study did not analyze 100% of the market, it analyzed data collected by the Chicago company Label Insight, which represents more than 80% of all food and beverage products sold in the US over the past three years — enough to paint a comprehensive picture.

“We need to better capture real-time information of our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its healthfulness,” said study co-author Dr. Mark Huffman, the Quentin D. Young Professor of Health Policy, associate professor of preventive medicine and medicine at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine cardiologist.

The fact that the average American has an unhealthy diet isn’t really a surprise by now. However, it’s important to understand the scale of the problem and reduce it as much as possible.

“To say that our food supply is highly processed won’t shock anyone, but it’s important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers,” said lead author Abigail Baldridge, a biostatistician in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”

The study was published in the journal Nutrients.


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