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February 5, 2024 Big Food News

Big Food

Hundreds of Studies Confirm: Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Higher Risk of Disease, Early Death

According to scientific research summarized by U.S. Right to Know, consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to early death and serious diseases, including cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic kidney disease.

processed foods with risk dial pointed to high

By Mikaela Conley

Hundreds of scientific studies provide strong evidence that consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to early death and serious diseases, including cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic kidney disease.

Food companies heavily market (and profit from) ultra-processed foods, and they also formulate these foods as addictive — with added sugars, fat, chemical additives and other attributes that make the foods highly palatable and easy to overeat.

Over the last 20 years, Americans have continued to increase their consumption of ultra-processed foods. Today, more than half of our calories come from ultra-processed foods.

In this post, we provide an overview of ultra-processed foods — what they are, how much we eat and key news coverage.

We are producing a series of fact sheets on the most serious health risks from consuming ultra-processed foods. The first fact sheets in the series cover early death, increased risk of cancer, obesity and weight gain.

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed foods are hyper-palatable, and often contain sweeteners, added salt, and food chemicals. Credit: Anthony Crimarco, Matthew J. Landry and Christopher D. Gardner (Current Obesity Reports)

“Ultra-processed food” describes food products that have been created or altered from their natural state with added sugars or artificial sweeteners, salt, additives, preservatives or other chemicals.

Added sweeteners in particular, including high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose and aspartame, are common in ultra-processed food.

They also often contain additives and preservatives, like food dyes (including Red 40, Yellow 5 and titanium dioxide), sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization defines ultra-processed foods as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes (hence, ‘ultra-processed’).”

Common ultra-processed groceries include cookies, sodas and energy drinks, fruit-flavored yogurts, margarine, packaged pastries, plant-based meats and milks, canned soups, frozen meals, sweetened breakfast cereals, granola, energy bars, hot dogs, deli meats and potato chips.

Brands like Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Frito-Lay, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg’s are among the world’s largest manufacturers of ultra-processed foods.

Some researchers, like Brazilian nutritionist Dr. Carlos A. Monteiro, do not believe ultra-processed foods are foods.

Monteiro told Healio that they are instead “formulations of substances derived from foods, often chemically modified and exclusively for industrial use, containing little or no whole foods and typically enhanced with colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives to make them palatable or hyper-palatable.”

The NOVA food classification system

The NOVA food classification system is a commonly used framework around the world to categorize processed foods.

Created by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2009, the system considers the “physical, biological and chemical processes that occur after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or used in the preparation of dishes and meals.”

In this framework, food is broken into four categories: 1. Unprocessed or in its natural form, 2. Processed with culinary ingredients, 3. Processed foods, 4. Ultra-processed foods.

How much ultra-processed food do Americans eat?

Research shows that Americans are among those who eat the most ultra-processed food in the world. In 2018, 57% of calories that the average American ate came from ultra-processed foods, up from 53.5% in 2002.

According to a cross-sectional study published in BMJ Open, non-Hispanic white and Black Americans eat the most ultra-processed food in the U.S. Hispanic adults eat less of these foods than other racial demographics.

Younger people, those who are less educated and/or have a lower income tend to eat the most ultra-processed foods.

American children also eat a significant amount of ultra-processed food. A large study published in JAMA found that, in 2018, 67% of the calories that kids eat came from ultra-processed food.

This was an increase from 61.4% in 1999. “The estimated proportion of energy intake from consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased among youths in the U.S. and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake,” the study authors wrote.

Credit: Mathilde Touvier et. al (The BMJ)

Originally published by U.S. Right to Know

Mikaela Conley is a science journalist at U.S. Right to Know.

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