The term “ultra-processed” may be an unfamiliar one, but it applies to many familiar foods. These include soft drinks, packaged snacks and baked goods, and reconstituted meat products such as chicken and fish nuggets. Instant noodles and commercially produced soups also qualify. A study published this year (2016) determined that more than half of the calories consumed in the U.S. come from these foods. The researchers defined these products as “industrial formulations, which besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations.” Ultra-processed foods frequently contain additives used to imitate the taste and texture of foods prepared from scratch and, according to the researchers, “to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”
In this study, the term “processed” was used in reference to cheese, butter, salt, table sugar, and other foods or ingredients that don’t appear in nature ready for the table.
In news reports, study leader Carlos Augusto Monteiro of Brazil’s University of São Paulo noted that ultra-processed foods are manufactured and marketed “to replace (minimally processed) foods and freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals.”
To reach its conclusions, the Brazilian research team analyzed dietary information on 9,317 children, teens and adults from the U.S. 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that ultra-processed foods accounted for almost 60 percent of total calories and 90 percent of the excess sugar consumed.
These foods leave much to be desired in terms of nutrition. They tend to be high in calories but low in vitamins, minerals and fiber. In addition to sugar, they often are high in sodium and saturated fat. What’s more, they’re often chemically formulated to induce cravings so you eat more and buy more.
Avoiding or eating less of these foods could go a long way to cutting excess sugar consumption, which can threaten health. Too much sugar in the diet has been linked to the development of high blood pressure, increased triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and fatty liver problems. It also makes insulin less effective in lowering blood sugar.
In my view, the best way to satisfy a sweet tooth is through foods in which the sugar is part of a whole food, such as in fresh or dried fruit (not fruit juice).
This advice from one of the Brazilian researchers can help you identify and cut down on ultra-processed foods: avoid products that don’t require preparation, including packaged soups, instant noodles, prepared frozen dishes and sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, ready-to-eat sauces and cake mixes.
However, this succinct advice from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says it all: “Don’t eat food with more than five ingredients, or with ingredients you can’t pronounce, or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Carlos Augusto Monteiro et al, “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” BMJ Open March 9, 2016, doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892