Ultra-processed foods linked to higher rates of disease
In many households, ultra-processed foods are mainstays at the kitchen table. They include products that you may not even think of as junk food such as breakfast cereals, muffins, snack bars and sweetened yogurts. Soft drinks and energy drinks count, too.
These foods represent an increasingly large share of the world's diet. Almost 60 percent of the calories that adults in America eat are from ultra-processed foods. They account for 25 to 50 percent of the calories consumed in many other countries, including England, Canada, France, Lebanon, Japan and Brazil.
Every year, food companies introduce thousands of new ultra-processed foods with an endless variety of flavors and ingredients. These products deliver potent combinations of fat, sugar, sodium and artificial flavors. They are what scientists call hyper-palatable: Irresistible, easy to overeat, and capable of hijacking the brain's reward system and provoking powerful cravings.
Yet in dozens of large studies, scientists have found that ultra-processed foods are linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. A recent study of more than 22,000 people found that people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had a 19 percent higher likelihood of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared with people who ate few ultra-processed foods.
So how do we break our dependence on ultra-processed foods? You can start by learning which foods in your diet count as ultra-processed. You don't necessarily have to give them up. But once you know how to spot an ultra-processed food, it's easy to find a less-processed substitute.
The growing focus on ultra-processed foods represents a paradigm shift in how the scientific and public health community is thinking about nutrition. Instead of focusing on the nutrients, calories or types of food, the emphasis instead is on what happens to the food after it's grown or raised and the physical, biological and chemical processes that occur before we eat it.
Foods can be unprocessed or minimally processed - like the whole fruits and vegetables, chilled or frozen meats, dairy products and eggs that we buy. Other foods go through a moderate amount of processing - you can usually spot these foods because they have only a few ingredients on the label. Think freshly made breads and cheeses, salted peanut butter, pasta sauce, bags of popcorn and canned fruits, fish and vegetables.
Then there are ultra-processed foods. At their core, they are industrial concoctions containing a multitude of additives: salt, sugar and oils combined with artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, stabilizers and preservatives. Typically, they're subjected to multiple processing methods that transform their taste, texture and appearance into something not found in nature. Think Frosted Flakes, Hot Pockets, doughnuts, hot dogs, cheese crackers and boxed macaroni & cheese.
Source: Washington Post