Study Finds Over Half The Food Americans Consume Is “Ultra-Processed”

Photographed by Eric Helgas.
While a bag of Cheetos here or there isn’t going to kill anyone, a study published last week has some new revelations about the status of the American diet, and they’re pretty depressing. According to researchers from Tufts University and the University of São Paulo, the average American diet gets about 58% of its energy intake from “ultra-processed foods.”

“Processed” can cover a lot of ground. The term means anything not eaten exactly the way it comes out of the ground or animal — bread, cheese, and yes, even wine and beer all count as “processed.”

But “ultra-processed?” According to the study, it's food that includes “substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

Examples include popular snack foods, like milk-based drinks, breads, breakfast cereals, and, of course, the perennial culprit, soda. Soft drinks and fruit drinks combined account for over 30% of the added sugars consumed by Americans.

Researchers interviewed over 9,000 people, chosen as a representative sample of the U.S. population, who reported what they ate over at least the last day. The researchers used that information to get a baseline estimate of how much sugar people consumed and where they were getting it from.

More than half of Americans are getting more than the recommended maximum of 10% of their calorie intake just from sugar; 89% of that added sugar came from ultra-processed foods. The more ultra-processed food you eat, the more sugar comes with it. Among the group that ate the highest proportion of ultra-processed food, more than 82% were exceeding that sugar maximum.

“The high consumption of added sugars in the U.S.A. is most likely contributing to excess obesity, Type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, hypertension, and coronary heart disease,” the study read. The researchers recommended limiting the consumption of the sugar-rich, ultra-processed foods as a way to reduce added sugar.

More from Diet & Nutrition