Tag Archives: Ultra-Processed

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.


How the American diet leaves people both overfed and undernourished at the same time

More than half of Americans’ calories come from ultra-processed foods, a new study from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University finds. The data also indicates that close to 90% of total added sugar intake can be traced back to these foodstuffs.

Image via wtsp

Many people nowadays shy away from any “processed” food — but that’s not an inherently evil label. According to FDA regulations, food can only be called fresh when you’ve pulled it out of the ground or off a tree and consume it as is (though washing, coating it or spraying it with pesticides is allowed.) Bread, therefore is a processed food. Frozen peas? Also processed.

However, that is not the level of processing this study is talking about. The researchers defined “ultra-processed” as being:

“Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

Frozen meals, soda, instant noodles or soups obviously fall under this category, but also things you’d usually consider healthy such as breakfast cereal. For the study, the team gathered data from more than 9,000 people aged 1+ years with at least one 24 hours dietary recall through a nationally representative survey.

They found that on average, 57.9 percent of calorie intake could be traced back to ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed or unprocessed foods — meat, plants, eggs, pasta or milk — accounted for 29.6 percent. Processed foods — canned or preserved foods, cheeses — accounted for 9.4 percent. The rest (2.9 percent) were “processed culinary ingredients” such as vegetable oil, table salt, and sugar.

But nearly all the added sugars in the typical American diet, 89.7%, comes from ultra-processed foods. The most recent U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that people get less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. In this study, the average was 14 percent—292.2 added sugar calories out of the 2069.5 daily total.

“The risk of exceeding the recommended upper limit of 10 percent energy from added sugars was far higher when ultra-processed food consumption was high,” the researchers write.

As much of the “nutrient-dense foods” are being replaced with what the researchers call ultra-processed sugar bombs, the typical diet leaves people “simultaneously overfed and undernourished.” So you might want to consider cutting down on such items from your shopping list.

Added sugars are one of the main driving forces behind obesity. The World Health Organization has warned that if we don’t cut down on them, we’ll be facing an obesity pandemic pretty soon. The best place to start, the researchers say, are sodas and sugary fruit drinks — as they’re just riddled with sugar.

The full paper, titled “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study,” has been published online in the journal BMJ Open and can be read here.