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Ultra-processed foods: How they affect your health and how to identify them

In an age where convenience often trumps nutritional value, a growing body of research is raising concerns about the health implications of eating ultra-processed foods. These foods undergo extensive industrial processing, resulting in products that are convenient, hyper-palatable, and potentially detrimental to long-term health.

While processing itself is not inherently negative, (think pasteurized milk or extra virgin olive oil) the extent of processing and its impact on nutrient density are critical factors to consider. Ultra-processed foods, which are commonly defined under a classification known as NOVA, contain additives and undergo significant alterations from their natural state. They tend to be energy-dense, nutrient-poor, and often have long shelf lives.

It’s raising concerns about their role in diet-related health outcomes such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as our busy lifestyles may push us to reach for easy, quick, or low-cost, rather than cooking and eating more unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts or seeds.

“As dieticians, we prefer to talk about the actual foods and nutrients and teach people how to read labels and what to look for, rather than focus on a broad, sweeping category,” says Caroline Passerrello, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Often, a particular food may not be a clear cut yes or no. “It requires education and label reading and knowing what to look for and what not to look for,” she adds.

Consider the level of food processing, the overall nutrient density of foods and your overall dietary patterns, Passarrello suggested. Packaged cookies and sodas are energy dense but lack the nutrients our bodies need. While they may provide some energy and calories, they’re not supplying vitamins or minerals. This may lead to nutrient deficiencies over time, as well as unintended weight gain, according to Passerrello, who is also an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.

However, there’s a spectrum. “The way our bodies respond to the calories and nutrients varies, depending on our age, activity level, and overall dietary patterns,” she says.

While the NOVA classification system provides the most common framework for understanding the continuum of food processing, several other classification systems, including one from the International Food Information Council, or IFIC, use slightly different criteria to define ultra-processed and processed foods. Generally, however, these guidelines agree that highly processed foods contain high amounts of total and added sugars, fats, and/or salt, low amounts of dietary fiber, use industrial ingredients, whether derived from foods or created in labs, and typically contain little to no whole foods.

It’s easy to find these highly processed foods on supermarket shelves: 

  • mass-produced bread
  • carbonated drinks
  • breakfast cereals
  • ice cream

These are just some products which typically contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. These goods are designed for prolonged shelf life, convenience, and profitability, often at the expense of nutritional value.

How an ultra-processed diet affects your health

Research has shown a clear association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and adverse health effects. A recent study in the British Medical Journal highlights a link between ultra-processed diets and increased calorie intake, weight gain, and elevated risk of cardiovascular diseases. Participants consuming ultra-processed diets ate an average of 500 more calories per day compared to those on unprocessed diets, putting on additional pounds over time.

Another reason to cut back consumption of highly processed foods: recent findings from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center suggest that following a healthier diet may slow down the aging process and reduce the likelihood of developing dementia. This underscores the impact dietary choices can have on overall health and cognitive function.

Eating fewer ultra-processed, more nutrient dense foods is especially important for children and older adults, because their changing bodies require different energy needs and higher-quality consumed calories. But don’t fret if you splurge on that mac and cheese or ice cream cone once in a while, Passarrello says. “Look at eating patterns over the course of a week, rather than day-to-day.”

It can be easy to fall into habitual patterns, like relying on food delivery apps, take-out, or convenience foods, and hard to get out of, Passarrello adds. It means making a lifestyle switch of budgeting more time and more money to change behaviors. Start with small steps. For example, whenever possible, find ways to add more nutrient density to meals, like swapping out a side salad for French fries. She also suggested:

  • Order off the children’s menu to reduce portion size when dining out
  • Add raw fruit to packaged breakfast cereal
  • Learn to read food labels and choose products with fewer additives and more recognizable ingredients
  • Prioritize whole or minimally processed food
  • Adopt a holistic approach to dietary patterns and consider the cumulative impact of food choices over time
  • Meet with a registered dietician or nutritionist at least once or twice to create a food plan that works with your lifestyle, food preferences and budget
  • Become an informed and empowered consumer to reduce your risk of poor health later on

How to spot ultra-processed foods

According to the NOVA classification system, ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Beverages may be ultra processed. 

Here are some examples of ultra-processed foods: 

  • packaged snacks and cookies
  • ice cream and frozen desserts
  • chocolates, candies and confectionery
  • cola, soda and other carbonated soft drinks
  • ‘energy’ and sports drinks
  • baked products made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat,
  • sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives
  • breakfast cereals and bars
  • sweetened and flavored yogurts, including fruit yogurts
  • dairy drinks, including chocolate milk
  • meal replacement shakes
  • pastries, cakes and cake mixes

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