A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition was looking to see if there is an association between consuming ultra-processed foods (UPF) and cognitive performance in older US adults. They studied 3632 adults aged 60 and older and their dietary intake over two 24 hour periods to see what percentage of their daily intake consisted of ultra-processed foods.
The foods they ate were classified according to the NOVA Food Classification System which looks at the level of processing that occurs after foods are separated from nature and before they are eaten or used for cooking. Foods are classified as:
Unprocessed or natural. Obtained directly from plants or animals without any alterations.
Minimally processed. Natural foods that may have been cleaned, had inedible parts removed, undergone processes like drying, fermenting, grinding, or freezing that might subtract part of the food but do not add oils, fats, sugar, salt or other substances to the original food. Examples would be frozen fruits or vegetables, dried herbs or spices, beans, nuts and seeds that don’t have added salt or sugar, or whole grain flours or cereals.
Processed Culinary Ingredients and Processed foods are manufactured using natural or minimally processed foods and can have salt, sugar, fats, or preservatives added. Examples would include canned vegetables or fruits with brine or sugar added, bacon or cured meats, salted or sugared nuts.
Ultra-processed foods. These are industrial formulations made mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), or they are synthesized in laboratories from food substrates with flavor enhancers, colors or other additives. Examples of these would be chicken nuggets and fish sticks, margarine, sweetened carbonated beverages and energy drinks, hot dogs, meal replacement shakes, candies and packaged cookies.
The study found that these adults ate an average of 53% of their total daily intake in ultra-processed foods, with the range being from 33% to 70%. When subjected to a variety of cognitive tests, and after adjusting for variables like smoking and chronic disease, they found that UPF consumption was associated with reduced language and executive function in subjects without pre-existing diseases. They concluded that impaired cognitive function might be improved by reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods. It has been estimated that 40% of dementia cases could be prevented by lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity, social interaction, exposure to environmental toxins, smoking, and management of chronic conditions. Eliminating or severely reducing UPFs is a great place to start.