By now we all know about the serious health consequences that a high consumption of ultra-processed foods. In fact, there is information that confirms that their consumption has increased in the last two decades in almost all segments of the US population, according to a new study led by researchers from the School of Global Public Health from New York University: the overall composition of the average American diet has shifted toward a more processed diet. It is undoubtedly an alarming situation, since eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with a poor quality diet and an increased risk of developing chronic diseases, among which obesity and heart disease stand out.
According to the statements of the main author of the study; Filippa Juul, who is an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at the New York University School of Public Health:
“The high and growing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key factor in the obesity epidemic.”
It is well known that ultra-processed foods are manufactured industrially and in principle they are characterized by being extremely accessible and due to their processing they have the peculiarity of being preserved for much longer. They are ready to eat or heat, include additives, and are largely lacking in whole foods – they are said to be empty calories, as their nutrient intake can be truly low. These are foods rich in sugars, refined flours, saturated and trans fats, sodium, sweeteners, additives and all kinds of preservatives, In short, they are the antithesis of a natural and integral diet.
As a background to this new study, it is worth mentioning that there are previous studies carried out by researchers from the NYU School of Global Public Health in which it is found that a higher consumption of Ultra-processed food is associated with obesity and heart disease. In the new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Juul and his colleagues analyzed dietary data from nearly 41,000 adults who participated in the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. from 2001 to 2018. Participants were asked what they ate in the past 24 hours, and the researchers classified the reported foods into four categories:
– Minimally processed foods (whole foods), such as vegetables, fruits, cereals, meat and dairy
– Processed culinary ingredients, such as olive oil, butter, sugar, and salt.
– Processed foods, such as cheese, canned fish, and canned beans.
– Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen pizza, soda, fast food, candy, salty snacks, canned soup, and most breakfast cereals.
Based on this, the researchers calculated the percentage of calories consumed from each food group. And the reality is that the findings were quite relevant: the consumption of ultra-processed foods grew from 53.5% of calories at the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57% at the end (2017-2018). In addition, it was found that these calories were derived from an increase in the consumption of ready-to-eat or hot meals, such as frozen dinners. While the intake of some sugary foods and drinks decreased. By contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7% to 27.4% of calories, and the main reason was related to people consuming less meat and dairy.
People of almost all demographic groups, regardless of income, increased their consumption of ultra-processed foods, with the exception of Hispanic adults, who consumed significantly less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared to non-Hispanic black and white adults. College graduates also ate significantly less ultra-processed foods. In particular, older adults (over 60 years of age) experienced the steepest increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods: this age group ate the least ultra-processed foods and most of the whole foods at the beginning of the study period, but at the beginning of the study period. The final eaters ate the most ultra-processed foods and the least whole foods.
Although, it is true that for many years the most recognized health organizations around the world have emphasized the problem symbolized by the high intake of ultra-processed foods: the growing evidence is overwhelming. It is no secret to say that there are numerous scientific references that link ultra-processed foods with chronic diseases and that is why the researchers of this relevant and extensive study recommend implementing policies to reduce their consumption. Among the main proposals on the table are: revised dietary guidelines, marketing restrictions, package labeling changes, and taxes on soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods. They also emphasize the importance of fostering support for programs and policies to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of whole foods (especially among disadvantaged populations).
As part of Juul’s statements: “In today’s industrial food environment, most of the food that is marketed to us they are in fact industrial formulations far removed from whole foods. However, nutritional science tends to focus on the nutrient content of foods and has historically ignored the health implications of industrial food processing. ”
It is worth mentioning that the study focused on pre-COVID-19 dataHowever, it is essential to consider that there are indications about how the pandemic caused an increase in the consumption of less nutritious and stable foods. “In the early days of the pandemic, people changed their shopping behavior to shop less frequently, and sales of ultra-processed foods such as boxed mac and cheese, canned soups and sandwiches increased substantially. Also, it has been proven that people may have eaten more ‘comfort foods’ packaged as a way to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic, ”added Juul.
Undoubtedly, these types of studies add to the growing evidence that invites us as a society to make changes in our way of living and eating, finally the high consumption of ultra-processed is not only killing us; also to the planet and future generations. They cause a serious deterioration in the quality and life expectancy of children, young people, adults and the elderly.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.