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Are Ultra-Processed Foods a Silent Killer?

Frozen meals and fast foods have become popular meal options around the world. But overconsumption of these highly processed foods can pose serious health risks.

By Donna Sarkar
Jul 9, 2021 7:00 PM
unhealthy foods
(Credit: beats1/Shutterstock)


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Ask any nutritionist and they'll tell you that our health is a reflection of the lifestyle we lead and what we put on our plates. The food we eat not only satisfies our hunger. It also fuels our bodies with energy to carry on. In today’s fast-paced life, there's limited time to make elaborate home-cooked meals. It's no wonder that 80 percent of Americans' total calorie consumption is thought to come from store-bought foods and beverages. Many of these food items are considered ultra-processed, causing a growing rate of concern for human health among scientists.

Breaking Down Ultra-Processed Foods

You may be wondering what exactly ultra-processed foods are. The concept of processing refers to changing food from its natural state, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Methods of accomplishing this include canning, smoking, pasteurizing and drying. Ultra-processed foods take processing one step further by adding multiple ingredients such as sugar, preservatives and artificial flavors and colors. Commercially prepared cookies, chips and sodas are just a few of many examples of foods that fall into the highly processed category.

In order to further understand ultra-processed foods, we must first explore the different levels of food processing. The term ultra-processed was first coined by Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Monteiro also created a food classification system called NOVA that has become a popular tool in categorizing different food items. The NOVA Food Classification system contains four different groups:

  • Unprocessed/Minimally Processed Foods: Think 100 percent natural and healthy. This group includes foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats and milk. Unprocessed foods are considered completely natural and are typically obtained directly from plants and animals. Minimally processed foods are also natural foods that have had very minor changes such as removal of inedible parts, fermentation, cooling, freezing, and any other processes that won't add extra ingredients or substances to the original product.

  • Processed Culinary Ingredients: This group has everything to do with flavor and typically contains ingredients such as fats and aromatic herbs that are extracted from natural foods. These ingredients are then used in homes and restaurants to season and cook items such as soups, salads and sweets. Many of these extracted ingredients can also be stored for later use.

  • Processed Foods: Most processed foods contain at least two or three added ingredients such as salt, sugar and oil. Think of this group as a combination of the first two groups. In other words, processed culinary ingredients or flavors that are added to natural foods. Examples include fruits in sugar syrup, bacon, beef jerky and salted nuts.

  • Ultra-Processed Foods: Last and least healthy on the NOVA scale are ultra-processed foods. This group is considered highly processed due to a large amount of added ingredients. Nova typically classifies this group as industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances such as oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins as well as flavor enhancers and artificial colors that make these foods appear more attractive. Frozen items such as pre-prepared burgers or pizzas, candies, sodas, chips and ice cream are a few examples.

On a daily basis, the ultra-processed category is not the best source of your nutritional intake. But there's still hope for our frozen pizza and chocolate lovers. Caroline Passerrello, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests that there may be a place on our plates for processed foods.

Everything in Moderation

It's often said that most things are OK in moderation. But does this saying ring true for ultra-processed foods?

According to Passerrello, ultra-processed foods like cookies, chips and sodas are more energy than nutrient-dense. This means that while the energy and calories are present, the nutrients we require like vitamins and minerals are often lacking. This can become a cause for concern because our bodies require both energy and nutrients to function properly.

A 2017 study that followed the dietary intakes of 9,317 participants found that Americans were eating ultra-processed foods at alarming rates. Foods, in this case, were classified according to the NOVA scale. The results of the study showed that on average more than half of the calories of the participants came from ultra-processed foods. These foods failed to deliver proper nutrients. Participants that consumed more ultra-processed food lacked proper protein, calcium, fiber, potassium, and vitamins A, C, D and E in their diets. In contrast, participants that consumed higher amounts of unprocessed or minimally processed foods had a better overall diet with adequate amounts of the different nutrients.

So, a balanced diet of the different food groups may just be the way to go. But what happens when we overindulge in ultra-processed foods on a regular basis? Because ultra-processed foods are typically filled with sugar and fat, they've been linked to numerous health risks including obesity, heart disease and stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancer and depression.

Passerrello explains that overconsumption of highly processed foods over time can also lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In addition, processed foods tend to have higher amounts of sodium, which is often used to extend their shelf life. Consuming too much sodium can lead to feelings of dehydration and cause muscle twitches.

The health risks associated with overconsumption of ultra-processed foods can easily pile up, but luckily, there are some healthy alternatives that we can choose to incorporate into our diet.

Eat This Not That

Cutting down on ultra-processed foods definitely seems like a good start to a healthy and balanced diet, but it's only the first step. "It's not just the ultra-processed food itself that is the concern, but what else we are, or are not, eating — as well as what our bodies need and ultimately, what foods we have access to on a regular basis," says Passerrello.

Health and nutrition can vary from person to person, so there is definitely no hard and fast rule as to what goes and what stays. However, Passerrello advises that if you are in a position in life with your time, taste and budget to make a choice between an ultra-processed food item and a minimally processed food item, you should typically opt for the minimally processed food.

Yes, frozen dinners may be an easy option after a long day of work. However, an easy alternative that can save time could be meal prepping in advance. A homemade alternative such as a simple rice dish or burritos can be easy to make in batches and store away for the week. Another simple way to slowly decrease your intake of processed foods is to check food labels for excess amounts of salt or sugar. Instead of sodas, Passerrello suggests opting for orange juice or milk that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Ultimately, choosing healthy foods is a matter of providing your body with the proper nutrients it needs while also incorporating your personal tastes and preferences. A handful of chips and a frozen pizza may not be the healthiest treat, but they won't do serious damage as long as ultra-processed foods aren't your main and only form of nutrients.

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