If we are what we eat, Americans are 57.9% ultra-processed and way above the recommended added sugar limit, according to a new study.
A report, published on Wednesday in BMJ Open, found that Americans get half of their overall calories from ultra-processed foods, or "industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations." Basically, anything that comes out of a package and requires no preparation.
Americans get most of their ultra-processed calories from a few different types of foods, per the study:
The most common ultra-processed foods in terms of energy contribution were breads; soft drinks, fruit drinks and milk-based drinks; cakes, cookies and pies; salty snacks; frozen and shelf-stable plates; pizza and breakfast cereals.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers looked at a 2009-2010 survey done by the CDC, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and focused on a section called "What we eat in America." Overall, they included responses from over 9,300 people, a nationally representative sample.
The researchers classified everything we consume into four categories: "Unprocessed or minimally processed"; fresh or dry fruit, fresh or frozen vegetables, meat, fish, milk, and grains, "processed culinary ingredients"; oils, fats, salts, and sugar, "processed"; canned foods and packaged cheese, that include a small addition of salt or sugar, and ultra-processed foods.
Americans eat all of these types of food, but in varying degrees: nearly 30% of our diets come from unprocessed or minimally process foods, 9.4% from processed foods and 2.9% from processed culinary ingredients, according to the study.
One of the problems with relying on ultra-processed foods for calories is that they are full of added sugars. The researchers found that 89.7% of the added sugars Americans eat come from these ultra-processed concoctions. Even savory foods—like processed meats and frozen meals—contain hefty amounts of added sugars, and these all push Americans well beyond the recommended daily allowance of added sugars (10% of your daily caloric intake). That limit exists for a few very compelling reasons. From the report:
A high intake of added sugars increases the risk of weight gain, excess body weight and obesity; type 2 diabetes mellitus; higher serum triglycerides and high blood cholesterol; higher blood pressure and hypertension; stroke; coronary heart disease; cancer; and dental caries.
Foods higher in added sugars are often a source of empty calories with minimum essential nutrients or dietary fibre, which displace more nutrient-dense foods and lead, in turn, to simultaneously overfed and undernourished individuals
And last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer said processed meats are "carcinogenic to humans," so there's also that.
Luckily, these findings give us a clear path to better health: Eat real food, and don't drink soda.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.