March 11, 2016

Disturbing factoid of the day: Americans get about 58% of their daily calories from "ultra-processed" food, according to a recent study published in the BMJ Open medical journal. Even if you believe Americans are developing healthier eating habits in general and growing wary of problem foods (looking at you, sugar), even if you take a glass-half-full attitude with this news, you have to realize that the glass is half full of Blue Berry Blast Kool-Aid.

The question remains: What exactly is "ultra-processed" food? We know that whole ingredients sold in their natural state—fresh produce, chemically unaltered meat and fish, and the like—are considered unprocessed. We know also that even some foods like bread, cheese, and yogurt—which can obviously be part of a healthy diet—are technically considered processed because they underwent, well, processes to become what they are.

For the purpose of this study, it seems that foods we tend to deride as truly processed (e.g., the boxed mac and cheese, canned chili, cake mixes, frozen dinners and other items sold in the middle of the supermarket where smart shoppers tread lightly), are considered ultra-processed. To quote from the study's abstract: "Ultra-processed foods were defined as industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations."

What makes the study even more interesting was that it aimed to determine how eating ultra-processed foods contributed to the intake of added sugars. Their findings were flooring.

Again from the abstract: "Ultra-processed foods comprised 57.9% of energy intake, and contributed 89.7% of the energy intake from added sugars. The content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods (21.1% of calories) was eightfold higher than in processed foods (2.4%) and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together (3.7%)." Current US dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 10% of calories from added sugars, so, um, we have a problem. Don't know about you, but I'm laying off the fluffernutters for a while.

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