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Most U.S. Packaged Foods ‘Ultra-Processed’, Unhealthy

A massive study coordinated by researchers at Northwestern University reveals that the U.S.’s (and, by association, the western world’s) Packaged Food supply – 80 percent of what most folks eat – is ‘ultra-processed’ and unhealthy, causing alarm among nutrition experts…

Super Big Soda - © secretsofthefed.comSugary beverages constitute one ultra-processed food sub-group that
‘tends to be consumed in great amounts’.

What is ‘ultra-processed’ food?

The NOVA Food Classification System, developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, defines ‘ultra-processed’ foods as the fourth and final group of foods the system identifies. The official NOVA definition reads as follows:

“These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of [minimally processed or unprocessed] foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product.”

The NOVA system expands on the goes more deeply into the raison d’être for ‘ultra-processed’ foods:

“The formulation and the ingredients of these products make them highly convenient (ready-to-consume), highly attractive (hyper-palatable), highly profitable (low cost ingredients), and – of great importance – highly competitive with foods that are naturally ready to consume and freshly prepared dishes and meals. As a result of their formulation, products belonging to this food group are intrinsically nutrient-unbalanced and tend to be consumed in great amounts.”

I’ll jump in, here, to point out that ultra-processed foods are purposely engineered to be ultra-easy and ultra-cheap to mass manufacture, making them highly attractive to food processors to make and market.

The takeaway

The most recent NOVA update condenses its findings into a set of key recommendations:

  • Make unprocessed or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  • Use processed culinary ingredients in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods, and to create culinary preparations
  • Limit the use of processed foods, consuming them in small amounts as components of culinary preparations or as part of meals based on natural or minimally processed foods
  • Avoid ultra-processed products, and
  • Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals [over] ultra-processed products.

My take

Obviously, ‘ultra-processed’ foods are not very healthy to consume, yet they ‘tend to be consumed in great amounts’. That’s a recipe for an ultra-unhealthy population, and an ultra-stressed health care system. Regardless of how healthy an individual’s own diet may be, we’re all paying for the impact of ultra-processed foods on society.

Seems to me that the new Meal Kit craze has found a place right in the middle between highly attractive and convenient ultra-processed foods and minimally-processed or unprocessed foods (the healthiest food category under the NOVA system). I wonder whether the original creators of the Meal Kit took all the foregoing into account before deciding to do it, or they just had an intuition it was the right way to go. It really doesn’t matter, but it may explain why the Meal Kit has proven such a viral phenomenon.

As to what society and industry should do to mitigate the harm caused by ultra-processed foods, the two sides in the debate remain far apart. But the NOVA people clearly recommend we all ‘avoid them’.

~ Maggie J.