Nearly 60% of calories consumed by average Americans come from “ultra-processed” foods, according to a new study published in BMJ Open. Researchers from the University of So Paulo in Brazil, along with Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School, analyzed what 9,317 people reported eating in a 24-hour span. According to these data, which come from the nationally representative 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), fewer than 30% of calories came from whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Although some foods that are technically “processed,” such as canned tuna, frozen vegetables, or yogurt, can make it easier to eat right, “ultra-processed” foods contribute little to healthy nutrition. Researchers defined these foods as formulations of several ingredients that, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not generally used in cooking. These flavorings, emulsifiers and other additives are designed to mimic the qualities of “real foods.” Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, packaged snacks, sweets and desserts, packaged baked goods, chicken/fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products, instant noodles and soups.
Importantly, the researchers also found that ultra-processed foods contributed almost 90% of the calories from added sugars, which represented about one in five calories in the typical such product. Notably, only those whose ultra-processed food consumption was among the lowest 20% of Americans had an average daily added sugar intake that fell below the maximum recommended limit. Cutting back on the consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages could be an effective way of curbing excessive added sugar intake, the researchers concluded.