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What are ultraprocessed foods anyway?

Part one of our blog series on ultraprocessed foods.

When you head to the grocery store, you may walk down aisle upon aisle of boxed, canned, and bagged food without putting much thought into what is lurking behind the labels. It’s hard to deny that ultraprocessed foods have become a big part of the modern diet. Although we often think of these items as convenience foods, most are far from healthy: they contain added sugars, unhealthy fats, sodium, and other additives linked to an increased risk for health problems like obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute found that 73% of the food available in the US is ultraprocessed and Frontiers in Nutrition published a study which found that “more than 60 percent of caloric intake in the U.S. comes from ultra-processed food.” These numbers show how easy it is to find ultraprocessed foods, and how difficult it may be to navigate away from them when trying to make healthier food choices. In this blog series, we will discuss what ultraprocessed foods are, how they can affect your health, and how to avoid them 

So, what are ultraprocessed foods anyway? In short, they are foods that have been processed to a point where they often barely resemble the whole foods from which they were derived. According to Dr. Stephen Devries, MD, a preventive cardiologist and executive director of the educational nonprofit Gaples Institute in Chicago, “Ultraprocessed foods are industrial creations made with little—if any—whole foods that often contain large amounts of added sugar and salt, [and] are typically infused with artificial colors and additives.” Dr. Neha Sachdev, MD, a family physician who is the director of health systems relationships at the AMA says, “Foods that are ultraprocessed are altered from their natural forms. This can be done to make foods appear a certain way or preserve foods for longer.”  

It’s not just food that has become ultraprocessed either. Even beverages can be hiding ultraprocessing behind a seemingly healthy logo. Drinks such as bottled fruit juices, sodas, hot cocoa powder, and even alcoholic beverages like whiskey, gin, and rum are all ultraprocessed.  

One of the biggest issues with processed foods is that they are so tasty and convenient. In our busy world with everyone always on the go, it’s really easy to turn to ultraprocessed foods to get us through the day. If you start your day with a granola bar and a coffee with some sweetened creamer, then have a ham sandwich on white bread with a bag of chips and a coke for lunch, enjoy a candy bar for a mid afternoon snack, and then end the day with a ready-made frozen lasagna and another soda, followed by ice cream with chocolate sauce, you have had nothing but ultraprocessed foods all day. This is not to shame anyone, this is just to raise awareness. Heck, that sounds like a typical food day for me too!  

In this journey toward making better food choices and living a healthier life you have to take baby steps. Start by looking at the labels on the foods you eat, try to cut out things like high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors. You don’t have to immediately cut out everything, all that will do is cause you to backslide. Just be more aware of the food choices you make and go from there. Remember, life is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Next week I will be discussing the the health risks associated with ultraprocessed foods, so stay tuned! 

Sources: 

Lee, E. (2022, May 12). What is ultra-processed food? CPD Online College. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://cpdonline.co.uk/knowledge-base/food-hygiene/ultra-processed-food/ 

Berg, S. (2022, December 16). What doctors wish patients knew about Ultraprocessed Foods. American Medical Association. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-ultraprocessed-foods#:~:text=%E2%80%9CUltraprocessed%20foods%20are%20industrial%20creations,with%20artificial%20colors%20and%20additives.%E2%80%9D

Agostino, J. (2022, November 30). Research suggests 73% of food in the U.S. is ultra-processed. Food Tank. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://foodtank.com/news/2022/11/database-indicates-u-s-food-supply-is-73-percent-ultra-processed/#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20study%20published,comes%20from%20ultra%2Dprocessed%20food.

Erin McGreal RN, BSN

Upper Echelon Medical in Fullerton, Orange County, East LA, and Inland Empire, California, provides comprehensive primary care services to patients of all ages living and working in the local community.
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