A new study from the New York University School of Global Public Health has found that almost all segments of the US population have increased their consumption of ultra-processed foods in the last couple of decades.  Ultra-processed foods are manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat, they include additives, and contain almost no whole foods.  The study analyzed eating patterns of 41,000 adults who participated in a CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 to 2018.  The participants were asked what they ate over the previous 24 hours, and the foods were divided into the following four categories:

  1. Minimally processed foods (whole foods), like vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, and dairy
  2. Processed culinary ingredients like olive oil, butter, sugar, and salt
  3. Processed foods, like cheese, canned fish, and canned beans
  4. Ultra-processed foods, like frozen pizza, soda, fast food, sweets, salty snacks, canned soup, and most breakfast cereals

The researchers found that from the beginning of the study to the end, the percentage of calories from ultra-processed foods grew from 53.5% to 57%, while whole food consumption decreased from 32.7% of calories to 27.4%.  This was the case for almost all demographic groups, regardless of their income, except for Hispanic adults and college graduates.  Adults over age 60 went from eating the least ultra-processed foods and most whole foods at the beginning to eating the most ultra-processed foods and least whole foods by the end of the study.

There is growing evidence, along with many previous studies, that consuming ultra-processed foods is linked to chronic illnesses like obesity and heart disease. The researchers recommend regulations and national policy changes that include revised dietary guidelines, package labeling changes, and taxes on soda and other ultra-processed foods.  Availability and affordability of whole foods also needs to be increased, especially to disadvantaged populations.

It’s important for each of us to know what we’re eating and how it affects our health.  When you cook your own meals, you know exactly what goes into them.  The manufacturers of ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, rely on their customers prioritizing speed and convenience over health and nutritional value.  As we like to say, Know your Food!

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