Ultra-processed food makes up majority of American’s diets, despite calls for “clean” foods

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Related tags: Nutrition, Us

Consumers may talk big game about wanting minimally processed “clean” foods, but new research published in BMJ Open found “ultra-processed foods” make up more than half of the average daily calories consumed in the US. 

Nearly three in five calories consumed daily by the average American in 2009-2010 came from ultra-processed foods, such as packaged snacks, packaged baked goods, instant noodles and processed meats, according to study, which was published online March 9​. 

An additional 9.4% of daily calories came from processed foods, such as canned food and simple breads and cheeses, and 2.9% from processed culinary ingredients, including table sugar, oils, salt and other extracts, researchers found by analyzing what was consumed in 24 hours by 9,317 participants older than 1 year in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

That leaves less than a third – 29.6% – of total calories coming from unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes and meat, which consumers claim to want.

Too much added sugar                                           

The study also found ultra-processed foods contribute almost 90% of the average daily intake of added sugars – a closely scrutinized category of ingredients that recently has taken heat for contributing to the ongoing obesity epidemic and related preventable health problems.

“The average 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%),”​ according to the study.

The main culprits of added sugar in ultra-processed foods were obvious suspects, including soft drinks, which made up 17.1% of US intake of added sugar; fruit drinks (13.9%), milk-based drinks (4.6%) and various baked goods such as cakes, cookies, pies, breads and sweet snacks, the researchers note.

Given reports that a high intake of added sugar increases the risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, cavities and other health problems, the US dietary guidelines recommend Americans limit added sugars to no more than 10% of total calories.

Turns out staying under 10% is a tall order for many Americans with the average daily consumption reaching upwards of 15% of total calories in 2005-2010, according to the study. It also found meeting the dietary guideline for added sugar intake became even more challenging the more ultra-processed foods a person ate.

“Notably, only those Americans in the lowest quintile of ultra-processed food consumption met the recommended limit of less than 10% energy from added sugar,”​ the report added.

Based on the strong linear association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and excessive intake of added sugar, the researchers suggest, “In the USA, limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods may be a highly effective way to decrease added sugars.”

Reducing ultra-processed foods not only would help consumers manage their weight and health by decreasing added sugars, but the study suggests “a reduction in ultra-processed foods should also increase the intake of more healthful, minimally processed foods, such as milk, fruits and nuts, and freshly prepared dishes based on whole grains and vegetables, which would produce additional health benefits beyond the reduction in added sugar.”

Editor’s note: Find out how else Americans and manufacturers are approaching weight management at our free online forum March 16. Register quickly and easily HERE​. 

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