Have you ever eaten something, looked at the label, and realized that, even though it’s apparently in your native language, you can’t read or pronounce or understand a bulk of the ingredients? I have. Things like hyper-flavored, brightly-colored chips, candies, sodas and packaged baked goods often fall into a category of what’s called “ultra-processed foods.” But what are ultra processed foods? And how do ultra-processed foods impact health?
This is currently a hot topic in the world of nutrition science. Ultra-processed foods have been receiving lots of attention from various nutrition and food policy experts for their potentially detrimental impacts on human health, and many believe they should be a target for decreased consumption (however, with industry funding, this issue keeps getting swept under the rug).
So what does this mean for you, the consumer? Well, I’d like to start by saying most of us probably know that fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grain products are generally beneficial for human health, and that things like Diet Coke, Oreos, Takis, Doritos, etc. But just what are ultra-processed foods, and just how much can they impact health? Read on for details!
*Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults to gather general information. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are foods that are mostly made of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy plus additives using a series of processes (like multiple milling, extruding, molding processes in a single object – ie ultra-processing’) to yield hyper-palatable foods with extended shelf lives.
Often times, they are low in fiber, protein, micronutrients, and are rich in additives, artificial colors, flavors, refined grains, sugar, salt, and/or unhealthful fatty acids.
Examples include hyper-palatable chips, snack foods, candies, packaged baked goods and pastries, and microwave foods, and artificially-sweetened beverages.
Basically, ultra-processed foods are the foods you can’t really recognize the original ingredients in in the final product (for example, when I see a Dorito, I don’t think “oh yeah, the first ingredient in that is definitely corn.”)
Processed versus Ultra-Processed Foods:
I think it’s important to distinguish processed versus ultra processed foods. Many foods are processed, including things like table salt, tofu, frozen vegetables, and dried or canned beans. Processing does not automatically make foods detrimental to human health.
However, ultra-processing often yields foods riddled with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, sugar, and salt, and fewer micronutrients, fiber, and protein compared to lesser-processed foods.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are things like fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, etc.
How Do Ultra-Processed Foods Impact Human Health?
A recently published randomized control trial compared food intake of participants given an ultra-processed diet versus those given an unprocessed diet. The researchers admitted 20 participants into clinical center for two weeks, where they were allowed to eat ‘ad lib’ and monitored for 14 days.
Individuals in the ultra-processed group ate, on average, 508 calories more per day than those in the unprocessed group.
If you think about it, considering ultra-processed foods are often micronutrient-poor, it’s possible they don’t have the same nourishing effect as lesser-processed foods, leading to increased need for food to obtain the proper balance of macro and micronutrients.
Another study in JAMA found a correlation between increases in ultra-processed food consumption and increased risk of mortality in adults over 45. At 10-years follow up, those with the highest levels of ultra-processed food consumption had a 62% higher risk for all-cause death than did the people in the lowest ultra-processed food consumption group.
While correlation never explains causation, it could be that adults who consume lots of ultra-processed foods have less stomach space for minimally or unprocessed foods, like healthful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc.
When ultra-processed foods displace micronutrient and fiber-rich foods in the diet, it’s easier to eat large volumes of energy-dense food that are rich in unhealthful fatty acids, artificial colors and flavors, refined sugars, and/or high fructose corn syrup, while still not fulfilling your body’s micronutrient needs.
Do I need to stop eating ultra-processed foods?
This is something I really want to address. I hesitated to even publish this post because it is never my intention to make anyone fear foods. I think there are plenty of people/blogs/influencers out there that encourage people to be afraid of feeding themselves, which I don’t always thinks people achieve health.
So please, let me be clear: I don’t think it’s necessary to fully avoid any food or food group, including ultra-processed food, to achieve health (food allergies aside). I myself eat ultra-processed foods, including Oreos, snack foods, candy bars, etc.
As I say in almost every single post, the dose makes the poison. Eating ultra-processed foods from time to time will not automatically make you unhealthy. If the bulk of your diet is from foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc, I think it’s fine – actually healthy – to not be afraid to eat ultra processed foods on occasion.
And my hesitations aside, I wanted to discuss this topic because I think it is important to understand that ultra-processing not only yields a lot of ‘junk’ foods, but also a lot of ‘lean’ or ‘diet’ foods, which are no substitute for whole, actual foods.
For example, I often look at “meal replacement” bars that have about 10,000 ingredients and are marketed as good for weightloss, and feel sad that people select those over things like simple peanut butter sandwiches with fruits and vegetables for lunch, mistakenly lead to believe that the “healthy” bar is a better choice for their health.
I think it’s important to understand that ultra-processed ‘light’ bread with ultra-processed ‘extra-protein meat’ and ‘low-calorie, fat-free cheese,’ with ‘fat free ranch,’ served with neon diet soda may be lower in calories than a sandwich with sprouted bread, and full-fat condiments and toppings like avocado and hummus paired with a kombucha, but that doesn’t make it a healthier options.
Feeding yourself shouldn’t be a numbers game aimed at consuming the lowest amount of calories or the highest amount of protein, etc. You should eat foods that are satiating, physically and mentally, most of the time.
So what does that mean to me? To me, that means eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and minimally processed foods, and selecting versions of ultra-processed foods that aren’t full of artificial colors, flavors, etc (for example, getting Annie’s cookies instead of other brands, getting high-fructose-corn-syrup and artificial-color and preservative-free snack and frozen foods from Trader Joe’s, Amy’s or Whole Foods), mainly because I think these versions often taste better and make me feel like gross.
PS: If you’re interested in seeing what I eat on the regular, check out my recent eats series.
Ultra-processed foods, in large amounts, can lead individuals to consume significantly higher amounts of calories. Furthermore, ultra-processed foods are typically nutrient-poor, meaning they don’t have many micronutrients to help you meet your needs for proper physiological function. They are also often rich in unhealthful fatty acids, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup, all of which are not the best to consume in large amounts.
Thus, ultra-processed foods, when possible, are best consumed in smaller amounts in addition to a diet rich in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc most of the time. It’s not essential to fully eliminate ultra-processed foods to achieve health; however, it’s a wise choice to choose nutrient and fiber-rich foods to make up the bulk of your diet most of the time.
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