Ultra processed food makes up a whopping 57.9 percent of our diets, new research shows, and these foods could be contributing to some of the biggest health problems in America.
The definition of “ultra-processed foods” comes from the NOVA classification system developed by the lead author of the new study, Brazilian academic Carlos Augusto Monteiro. In 2010, he wrote a paper that organized foods into four categories:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, fish, and milk.
- Processed culinary ingredients, like table sugar, oil, and salt.
- Processed food like canned food, bread, and cheese.
- Ultra-processed food, including “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations." These "food substances" include artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and emulsifiers.
It is this last category that may be killing America.
"Ultra-processed foods are hardly part of a diet based on minimally processed foods and freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals," Monteiro told CBS News. "Instead, they are manufactured and marketed to replace those foods, drinks, dishes and meals."
These artificial ingredients are hazardous enough, but what is perhaps the most telling information from this study is the main ingredient in most of this processed food: a whole lot of sugar.
The study, which surveyed 9317 American participants on their food intake, showed that ultra-processed foods contributed a whopping 89.7 percent of calorie intake from added sugars (not including naturally occurring lactose and fructose in fruit) according to the study.
The problem of the over-consumption of sugar has been highlighted in recent policy action across the globe, including the UK National Health System, Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, and American Heart Association. These reports concluded that a high sugar intake increased the risk of weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease, and cancer.
Bearing in mind the results of the study, here is our list of the most dangerous ultra-processed foods, to avoid at all costs.
1. Mass-Produced Soft Drinks
One of the biggest culprits contributing to the sugar problem is mass-produced soda, with 35 grams of sugar per 12-ounce can. According to the study, soft drinks contribute to 17.1 percent of the U.S. intake of added sugars, while fruit drinks -- which are different as far as marketing is concerned, but not so much in terms of nutrition -- clocked in at a whopping 13.9 percent.
Reports recently released by the USDGAC recommended limiting added sugars to no more than 10 percent of total calories, 5 percent lower than the average consumption of added sugars in the U.S. from 2005 to 2010. Soda doesn’t help to lower this average: with 100 percent of the total calories in soda coming from sugar and 140 calories per serving, an adult consumes 7 percent of his or her average total calorie intake with just one soda a day.
2. Packaged Baked Goods
Put down that Twinkie! Packaged baked goods are yet another culprit for added sugars, and ultra-processed foods like these are easy to binge eat without thinking.
"Ultra-processed foods are designed to appeal to our taste buds, and can often lead us to crave more," Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told CBS News. "These foods are ones that can be eaten mindlessly, making it easy to overeat them without even realizing how much you are having."
This is definitely true for the "cakes, cookies and pies" category from the study, which came in at 11.2 percent of the U.S. intake of added sugars.
And don't be fooled by so-called "healthy" options in this category. Added sugars, according to the study, include molasses, honey, and "all types of syrup, such as maple syrup." One popular granola bar brand that prides itself on being healthful lists sugar as the second ingredient (not to mention honey as the fifth and brown sugar syrup as the seventh), with 11 grams of sugar per serving.
3. Processed Bread
Bread might not be the first food you think of when you consider the ultra-processed category, but processed bread was one of the most common ultra-processed foods in terms of energy contribution in the study, contributing 7.6 percent to the U.S. intake of added sugars.
One household brand of processed sliced bread has 4 grams of sugar per slice and upwards of 30 ingredients; meanwhile, homemade or artisanal bread can have as few as three or four ingredients, none of which is necessarily sugar.
By cutting out these foods, according to the study authors, Americans can vastly improve their health and reduce their consumption of sugar. The study authors note that while most dietary guidelines recommend limiting sugar consumption, “such guidelines are not always clear on how to put this recommendation into practice.” Limiting or removing these foods from our diets entirely may be the first step.
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