The so-called “American diet” doesn’t have a reputation for being the most healthful.
But just how terrible is it? A new study revealed some disturbing information.
According to new research published in the online journal BMJ Open, “ultra-processed” foods make up more than half of all calories consumed in the US and almost all of our added sugar intake.
In case you are wondering what the study authors mean by “ultra-processed foods”, here’s how they define them:
Ultra-processed foods are formulations of several ingredients. Besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, they include substances not generally used in cooking, such as flavorings, emulsifiers, and other additives designed to mimic the qualities of “real foods.”
Ultra-processed foods include mass produced soft drinks; sweet or savory packaged snacks; confectionery and desserts; packaged baked goods; chicken/fish nuggets and other reconstituted meat products; instant noodles and soups.
To assess the intake of ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet, the researchers analyzed dietary data involving more than 9,000 children, adolescents, and adults from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an ongoing nationally representative cross sectional survey of US citizens.
They found that ultra-processed foods comprised almost 60 percent of the total calories consumed, and 90 percent of the calorie intake from added sugars.
Added sugars represented 1 in every 5 calories in the average ultra-processed food product – far higher than the calorie content of added sugars in processed foods and in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients, including table sugar, combined.
Yes, this is as bad as it sounds.
Not only are ultra-processed foods loaded with sugar, they contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, refined oils and grains, artificial flavors and/or colors, preservatives, and trans fats.
In other words, they are high in health-damaging ingredients and are low in beneficial ones like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients (or contain no nutrients at all).
Evidence is growing that eating too much sugar can lead to cardiovascular disorders, fatty liver disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, and even cancer.
Unfortunately, added sugar is found everywhere: it is in approximately 75% of packaged foods purchased in the US.
The average American consumes anywhere from a quarter to a half pound of sugar per day (no, that is not a typographical error – it is equal to about 30-60 teaspoons of sugar).
If that sounds like an impossible feat, consider how easy it is to consume sugar in liquid form. ONE can of soda contains almost 8 teaspoons of sugar. Cranberry, pomegranate, grape, and orange juice contain 48 to 63 grams of sugar per 12 ounces…which is 9.6 to 12.6 teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Not only are we eating too much of the bad stuff – we aren’t getting enough of the good. The researchers also found that minimally processed or unprocessed foods – like meat, most fruits and vegetables, and eggs – make up only 29.6% of our daily food consumption.
Lead study author Carlos Augusto Monteiro, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, told CBS News:
Different from processed culinary ingredients – like salt, table sugar, vegetable oils, and butter – and from processed foods, like cheese and simple breads, ultra-processed foods are hardly part of a diet based on minimally processed foods and freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals. Instead, they are manufactured and marketed to replace those foods, drinks, dishes and meals.
Ultra-processed foods are designed to be appealing to our taste buds, and are usually easy and convenient to buy and consume.
Avoiding these fake foods (or keeping your intake very low) doesn’t have to be difficult: focus on stocking your kitchen with healthful foods that are quick and easy to make. Plan ahead and pack snacks to take with you so you don’t find yourself grabbing junk from the convenience store or vending machine.