Ultra-Processed Foods

In our North American diet, more than 90 percent of the sugar and almost 60 percent of the calories from sugar are consumed in "ultra-processed foods" (BMJ Open, March 9, 2016;6(3)). The U.S. government recommends that you get no more than 10 percent of your calories from added sugars. Yet 71 percent of North American adults take in more than 15 percent of their calories from added sugars. Excess sugar intake leads to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, certain cancers and tooth decay.

The researchers analyzed the diets of more than 9000 people and found that on average, 20 percent of the calories they ate came from sugar in ultra-processed food products. The percentage of sugar was much higher in those who ate the most ultra-processed foods. Some of the people got more than 80 percent of their calories from the sugar in processed foods. They estimate that only people who severely restricted processed foods were able to reduce their sugar intake to the government-recommended level of less than 10 percent of their total calorie intake. See my report on Hidden Sugars.

Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, most dry breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, frozen meals and entrees, breads, cakes, pies, cookies, snack bars including power bars, diet bars and energy bars, candy, crackers, salty snack foods such as potato chips, corn chips and pretzels, processed meats including those made from poultry or seafood, instant soups and noodle bowls, bottled juices, salad dressings and many others. To make ultra-processed foods taste good, manufacturers add salt, sugar, oils, fats, artificial flavorings, emulsifiers, preservatives, colorings, sweeteners and other additives.

Study Recommendations The authors recommend cutting way back on ultra-processed foods to reduce intake of added sugars, and getting most of your calories from nutrient-rich unprocessed foods including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains and other seeds. 

Definitions The authors of this study define ultra-processed foods as "Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include . . . flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods  . . . or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.

Unprocessed foods are those that are recognizable parts of plants (leaves, stems, roots, fruits, seeds) or animals (cuts of meat, poultry or seafood, eggs)
Minimally processed foods are parts of plants or animals that have been factory-cleaned and packaged and may have been ground, chopped or otherwise reduced to small particles; blanched or pre-cooked; and/or frozen, canned or dried.  Non-flavored dairy products including cheeses and plain yogurt, and simple prepared foods such as pastas or fresh-baked bread can also be considered to be minimally processed.   If the package has a very short list of ingredients (1-4), the food is probably minimally processed, but check for added sugars.
Checked 4/4/17

Get our newsletter