What Makes a Food "Ultra-Processed"? A Look at The Latest Risk In Our Diets

The average American gets nearly 60% of their daily calories from 'ultra-processed' foods. What are they? STACK investigates.

A recent study published in the journal BMJ Open found that the average American gets 57.9 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods.

Instinctually, that sounds bad. But what exactly does the word "ultra-processed" mean? In a world where food companies are slapping words like "natural" and "raw" and "organic" on packaging, what sorts of foods are categorized as ultra-processed? And why are Americans eating so many of them? To understand the answers, you must first understand that processing is not inherently a bad thing.

Nearly every food sold in supermarkets (even fancy ones like Whole Foods) is processed in one way or another. The International Food Information Council defines food processing as "any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it's available for us to eat." That means a food that undergoes something as simple as freezing or packaging is technically a "processed food."

"It's important not to demonize all processing," says Ryan Andrews, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. "Minimally processed foods can be quite useful, and include items like rolled oats, shelled nuts, canned beans and  frozen vegetables. They can help someone eat in a tasty, nutritious and sustainable way."

Instead of thinking about food processing as black vs. white, good vs. evil, it's more accurate to think about the extent of processing as an indicator of nutritional value. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a food has to go through quite a lot of processing before it becomes "ultra-processed."

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For the study referenced at the beginning of this article, researchers slotted foods into four different groups based on their levels of processing, using the NOVA food classification system as a guide. The first group in the NOVA system refers to "unprocessed or minimally processed foods." These are defined by NOVA as "foods of plant origin (leaves, stems, roots, tubers, fruits, nuts, seeds), or animal origin (meat, other flesh, tissue and organs, eggs, milk, shortly after harvesting, gathering, slaughter or husbanding. Minimally processed foods are unprocessed foods altered in ways that do not add or introduce any substance, but that may involve subtracting parts of the food." Examples include fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, fresh, frozen or dried beans and legumes, unsalted nuts and seeds, milk, eggs, water, coffee and fresh, dried, chilled or frozen meats, poultry, fish or seafood. Researchers found the average American consumes 29.6 percent of their daily calories from unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

Fruits, Nuts and Grains

The next NOVSA group is "processed culinary ingredients," defined as "food products extracted and purified by industry from constituents of foods, or else obtained from nature, such as salt. Specific processes include pressing, milling, pulverizing, stabilizing or 'purifying' agents and other additives may also be used." Examples include plant oil, animal fats, syrups, sugars, flours and uncooked raw pastas. Researchers found the average American consumes 2.9 percent of their daily calories from processed culinary ingredients.

The next group is called "processed food products," which—along with "ultra-processed products"—fall under the subhead of "ready-to-consume products." According to NOVA, processed food products are "manufactured by adding substances like oil, sugar or salt to whole foods, to make them durable and more palatable and attractive. Directly derived from foods and recognizable as versions of the original foods. Generally produced to be consumed as part of meals or dishes, or may be used, together with ultra-processed products, to replace food-based freshly prepared dishes and meals. Processes include canning and bottling using oils, sugars or syrups, or salt, and methods of preserving such as salting, salt-pickling, smoking, and curing." Examples include peeled or sliced fruits in syrup, salted nuts, cheese, canned vegetables in brine, and un-reconstituted processed meats such as ham or bacon. Researchers found the average American consumes 32.6 percent of their daily calories from processed food products.

Finally, we arrive at the classification of "ultra-processed products." The NOVA definition:

 "Formulated mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods. Typically contain little or no whole foods. Durable, convenient, accessible, highly or ultra-palatable, often habit-forming. Typically not recognizable as versions of foods, although may imitate the appearance, shape and sensory qualities of foods. Many ingredients not available in retail outlets. Some ingredients directly derived from foods, such as oils, fats, flours, starches, and sugar. Others obtained by further processing of food constituents. Numerically the majority of ingredients are preservatives; stabilizers, emulsifiers, solvents, binders, bulkers; sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colors and flavors; processing aids and other additives. Bulk may come from added air or water. Micronutrients may 'fortify' the products. Most are designed to be consumed by themselves or in combination as snacks. They displace food-based freshly prepared dishes, meals. Processes include hydrogenation, hydrolysis; extruding, molding, reshaping; pre-processing by frying, baking."

Examples include chips, ice cream, chocolates, hot dogs, poultry and fish "nuggets," energy bars, breakfast cereals, instant soups, pastries, many salty/sweet snacks, cakes, energy drinks, sodas, fruit drinks, and pre-prepared meat, pizza, cheese or pasta dishes. Researchers found the average American consumes 57.9 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed food products.

Ultra Processed Foods

There's a lot to take in there, but let's focus on a couple of key phrases. The sentence "typically not recognizable as versions of foods, although some may imitate the appearance, shape and sensory qualities of foods" is particularly interesting. These products are so far removed from actual whole foods and contain so many additives, one cannot distinguish how the food was created. Most of these products didn't exist 100 years ago, but they now make up the majority of our diets! The phrase "often habit-forming" is another intriguing nugget. Snacks aren't cigarettes, so how can you possibly get addicted to ultra-processed products? As it turns out, many of them are designed to get you hooked.

"Highly processed foods can taste really good. A little too good. This is because they're designed to elicit maximal levels of pleasure and consumption," Andrews says. Over time, our brains can get addicted to the effects highly processed foods have on our bodies, so we seek them out. A recent study in the scientific journal PLoS ONE concluded that "highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (i.e., high dose, rapid rate of absorption), appear to be particularly associated with 'food addiction.'"

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All of this wouldn't matter if ultra-processed products were high in nutrients and supportive of a healthy lifestyle, but that's simply not the case. In fact, the researchers also found that ultra-processed foods account for 90 percent of the added sugar in the average American diet. "Highly processed foods typically have fewer vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and nutrients like fiber and protein than lower processed foods. They also usually contain more low-quality fat, sugar, sodium, calories and refined carbohydrates," says Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition.

Ultra-Processed Foods

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