Hazards of Ultra-processed Foods

Lots of salt, sugar, unhealthy oils, additives, and calories

Cut back on ultra-processed foods to Eat Better

In his wildly successful book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan proposed eating foods that grandma ate and avoiding highly processed foods that she didn’t eat. That sounds nice, but does evidence support this advice? A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a significant link between consumption of ultra-processed foods and mortality risk in a group of 44,551 French adults 45 years or older. Specifically, a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumed over a seven-year period predicted a 14 percent higher risk of all-cause mortality. Participants who were younger, lower in income, lower in education, living alone, higher in body-mass index, and lower in physical activity tended to eat more ultra-processed foods.

A cross-sectional study of a large, representative sample of Americans in 2009-2010 showed that ultra-processed foods accounted for 58 percent of calories and 90 percent of added sugars eaten. Added sugar in ultra-processed foods comprised 21 percent of calories eaten, twice the upper limit recommended by the World health Organization. Only those Americans in the lowest 20 percent of ultra-processed food intake stayed below the recommended upper limit of added sugar (10 percent of total calories). Eating lots of added sugar is linked to higher risk of chronic diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease.

Brazilian researcher Carlos Montiero and colleagues developed a food classification system called NOVA. It categorizes foods into groups based in their level of and purpose for processing rather than on nutrients. Group 1 includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Examples include milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, unsalted nuts, and cuts of meat. Group 2 includes processed culinary ingredients, such as vegetable oils obtained from crushed olives or seeds, honey, butter, and cane and beet sugar. Group 3 includes processed foods. Examples include canned fruits, vegetables, and legumes; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; cheese; and canned fish. Group 4 includes ultra-processed foods, which are typically industrial formulations of five or more ingredients. Salt, sugar, oils, flavors, and colors typically occur in ultra-processed foods. Common ultra-processed foods include ice cream, chocolate, candies, mass-produced breads, energy bars, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

Montiero and colleagues also noted that ultra-processed foods are designed to be relatively cheap to produce, have long shelf life, suitable for being eaten anywhere, and hyperpalatable. Ultra-processed foods tend to be energy-dense, high in unhealthy oils, refined grains, salt, and sugar. Such foods are commonly produced and heavily marketed by multinational corporations. Ultra-processed foods are replacing more traditional foods in both developed and developing countries. Food consumption has shifted globally from identifiable foods cooked and eaten at home to ultra-processed foods made in factories. These foods are often consumed as snacks or as heat-and-eat items at work or home or ready-to-eat items at fast food outlets. Hyperpalatable foods are ideal for mindless eating.

Do yourself a favor and cut back on ultra-processed foods. Your body will thank you.


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