Americans are getting most of their calories and sugar from a specific type of food. According to a new study, almost 60 percent of all calories and 90 percent of all added sugar in a typical American diet come from ultra-processed foods.

Researchers for the cross-sectional study used dietary data from more than 9,000 people from the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Details are published in BMJ Open.

What does ultra-processed mean?

It means these foods contain ingredients you’d never use if you were doing the food prep.

“Ultra processed foods are by definition formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations,” Dr. Scott Schreiber, a certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietitian/nutritionist practicing in Delaware told Care2.

“In particular,” he continued, “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 — these preparations are not even food. They have been altered and manipulated to become artery clogging, blood sugar raising, cancer causing substances that Americans are eating every day.”

In the study, added sugars accounted for 21.1 percent of calories in ultra-processed foods. That’s eight times higher than processed foods and five times higher than what you’ll find in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together.

The researchers found a strong association between ultra-processed foods and overall dietary intake of added sugars. People who ate more ultra-processed foods tended to exceed the recommended upper limit of 10 percent of energy from added sugars. The only people whose sugar intake fell below the maximum recommended limit were those whose ultra-processed food consumption fell within the lowest 20 percent.

Ultra-processed foods laden with sugar contribute to weight gain and obesity, which can lead to a host of health problems, including tooth decay, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They also fill up our bellies so we’re less likely to eat the nutritious foods we need.

Items considered to be ultra-processed include some:

  • soft drinks
  • breakfast cereals
  • desserts
  • packaged baked goods
  • frozen meals
  • sweet or savory packaged snacks
  • instant noodles and soup
  • chicken and fish nuggets and other reconstituted meat products

The researchers concluded that cutting back on the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of curbing excessive added sugar intake in the United States.

Schreiber added, “In my opinion, eliminating these from American diet will change healthcare and significantly reduce chronic disease.”

Be a label reader…and make a clean sweep

Cindy Santa Ana, integrative nutrition health coach and author of the book, Unprocessed Living, said, “The most important thing a consumer can do is flip the box over and read the ingredient label.” She cautions consumers to be on the look out for these ingredients:

  • high fructose corn syrup
  • partially hydrogenated oils
  • MSG
  • artificial colors and flavors
  • nitrates
  • artificial sweeteners
  • abbreviated chemical preservatives like TBHQ, BHT, BHA, BVO, and EDTA, among others

“Foods containing these chemicals are truly ultra-processed and shouldn’t be eaten,” said Santa Ana.

Take a look around your kitchen. Is your pantry filled with ultra-processed cereals and instant soups? Is your freezer stacked with frozen meals? Fridge filled with soda and reconstituted meats? It might be time to make a clean sweep of all the fake foods and replace them with fresh produce, pulses, and minimally or unprocessed foods.


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