When you’re hungry and short on time, what kind of food do you reach for? For most of us, it depends on what’s around, and what’s around — if you look at your average workspace vending machine or take a walk around an American grocery store — is likely to be ultra-processed.
Potato chips, candy bars, sugary granola bars (almost the same thing), roasted-and-salted-to-hell nuts. Junk food, plain and simple.
The ubiquitousness of junk food in the U.S. has long been the focus of health groups and, yes, diet peddlers. Soda taxes and pushes to “eat clean” work two angles toward achieving the same goal: reducing our reliance on ultra-processed foods. They’re bad for you — for your wallet, for your waistline, for your well-being — these groups claim, and they’ve claimed it for years, despite a lack of hard evidence.
Until now. In recent months, new research has started to back up claims that processed foods are bad for you — in ways we never imagined before. What does the new research mean for your diet and well-being? We explain.
What is an “ultra-processed” food?
First things first: there’s a difference between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods. First coined in 2009 by researcher Carlos Monteiro, a Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, “ultra-processed” foods are part of a four-part Nova scale that classifies food based on their production.
The Nova scale is as follows:
- 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, like eggs, the edible parts of plants, pasteurized milk or ground spices.
- 2: Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils or butters.
- 3: Processed foods, such as canned vegetables, fruits packed in syrup, fresh bread or cheese.
- 4: Ultra-processed food and drink products, such as soda, reconstituted meats (e.g. hot dogs), or frozen dinners.
To put it another way, according to Vox, “ultraprocessed foods are created in factories. They’re pumped full of chemicals and other additives for color, flavor, texture, and shelf life. This processing generally increases the flavor and caloric density of the foods, while stripping away the fiber, vitamins, and nutrients.”
And why does this matter to Americans in particular? Because we’re far too reliant on these foods.
According to a 2010 study on U.S. eating habits, which followed 9,317 participants for a year, “Ultra-processed foods comprised 57.9% of energy intake, and contributed 89.7% of the energy intake from added sugars.” In plain language: the average American gets more than half of their calories from ultra-processed foods — and much of that comes from added sugars.
Why is this a problem? Several studies that have come out in the last year can illuminate why this should worry you.