NUTRITION
March 21, 2016

The Ultra-Processed Food Invasion

They're not really even foods, just bundles of emulsifiers, salt, added sugars and calories, and they are obesity's best friends.

A lot of the food we eat isn’t real food at all. It’s a man-made concoction of several ingredients like sugar and salt, oils and fats, and items you wouldn’t use when cooking from scratch — things like emulsifiers and flavorings and additives that imitate the taste, texture and other qualities of ‘real’ foods.

More than half of the calories we consume come from these ‘ultra-processed’ foods. You know the ones: instant noodles, soft drinks, chips, candies, packaged snacks, baked goods, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, frozen pizzas and reconstituted meat products, just to name a few.

Avoid foods that don’t require you to do anything but eat them from the package or heat them up.

Ultra-processed foods are designed to appeal to our taste buds. They lack fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. For all their calories, they offer little nutritional benefit.

This story is about one ultra-processed ingredient: the added sugars in ultra-processed foods.

Researchers were interested in the proportion of people who get more than the recommended intake of sugar as a result of eating processed foods. According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this limit is 10 percent of their total calories.

Using U.S. government survey data to assess sugar intake, they found that one in every five calories, or 20 percent of the calories, in ultra-processed foods comes from added sugars. That percentage is much higher than what is found in processed foods, minimally processed foods, unprocessed foods and processed cooking ingredients, like table sugar, combined. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods come from sugar, and about 60 percent of the calories the average American consumes come from these foods.

Those people who ate the most ultra-processed foods exceeded the upper limit for sugar intake — often by a lot. Those who tended to avoid ultra-processed foods (getting less than 20 percent of their calories from them) had an added sugar intake that fell below 10 percent of calories.

Excessive amounts of added sugar contribute to obesity and diabetes, both of which increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, not to mention tooth decay.

It is easy to keep your intake of ultra-processed foods at a reasonable level. Simply make sure you have more whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet. Stock your fridge, freezer, pantry (and desk drawer) with whole, natural foods that are quick and easy to prepare. Avoid foods that don’t require you to do anything but eat them from the package or heat them up.

Reducing the amount of ultra-processed food you eat is the most important way to cut back on your sugar intake, a move that could prevent future health problems.

The study is published in BMJ Open.

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