Additives sure aren’t adding to your health.
A frighteningly large portion of the calories and sugar North Americans eat comes from ultra-processed foods, which are tinkered with even more than regularly processed foods and may contribute to serious health issues like Type 2 diabetes, according to a new study.
Researchers from Tufts University and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil found that ultra-processed foods are responsible for almost 60 percent of all the calories North Americans consume and about 90 percent of all added sugars they eat.
“The content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods was eightfold higher than in processed foods and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together,” they write in the study published Wednesday in BMJ Open.
Added sugars should make up only about 10 percent of a person’s total caloric intake, the researchers note – however, they found that more than 80 percent of North Americans typically exceed this recommended limit.
Processed foods generally have added oils and salt. Ultra-processed foods are different because they’re enhanced with other additives, including colors, artificial flavoring and sweeteners, the study says.
Researchers say the top ultra-processed foods that North Americans consume are:
- Cakes, cookies and pie
- Salty snacks
- Frozen meals
- Soft drinks and fruit drinks
- Ice cream
- French fries
For the study, researchers conducted at-home interviews and health examinations with 9,317 people of all ages, who also provided them with information about what they ate for a 24-hour period. The researchers say their study is the first to examine the relationship between ultra-processed foods and sugar intake in the U.S.
Eating excess amounts of added sugars is “most likely” contributing to health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, the study warns.
The best thing to do is to entirely cut out these foods from your diet, the researchers say. That may sound easier said than done – and maybe even impossible, especially when life gets really busy. One way to do this is to avoid replacing water, pasteurized fresh milk and freshly squeezed fruit juices by soft drinks or flavored fruit drinks, said Professor Carlos A. Monteiro, one of the study’s authors.
Preparing at least some fresh foods at home rather than buying a lot of packaged meals will help decrease sugar intake, Monteiro added. And when you do buy packaged foods, be sure to look at the ingredient labels – even items like deli meats often contain sugar.
It’s Not Your Fault That You Eat So Much Sugar
Consumers don’t even want all this cloying sweetness. Manufacturers made the decision for them.
Consumers’ most common complaint about taste? “Too sweet.”
Americans tend to associate our health problems with sin. It’s hard to find a health story in the press that doesn’t blame greed and lack of willpower for our ongoing epidemics of obesity and diabetes as well as a recent upturn in the rate of heart disease. But the problems stem more from a greedy food industry than from any weakness in consumers. Our supermarket shelves are filled with items made with cheap ingredients, especially sugar and corn syrup, whether people want it or not.
A fascinating new study out of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia showed that among 400,000 food reviews on Amazon.com, the primary complaint was that food was too sweet. People used terms like “syrupy, overwhelmingly or cloyingly sweet,” said behavioral geneticist Danielle Reed, who led the research. She and her colleagues used a machine- learning program to sort through the thousands of reviews covering 67,553 products.
The finding was a surprise; she had designed the study to add to her body of work on the way people vary in the perception of bitterness. Genetic differences make some people much more sensitive to bitter tastes than others, and this can affect whether we love or hate vegetables such as broccoli and kale. She was surprised, she said, that on Amazon reviews, consumers rarely complained about bitterness, or saltiness for that matter. They complained about sweetness. Manufacturers may think they are sweetening things to suit a common taste, in which case they are getting it wrong – but the market is full of oversweetened foods, so the manufacturers mostly don’t lose customers to better-tasting competitors.
Or the problem may be that manufacturers are trying to use the cheapest possible ingredients in a way that consumers will still tolerate. Sugar is cheap, and corn syrup even cheaper. In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” author Michael Pollan recounts the way the introduction of corn syrup in the late 20th century tempted manufacturers add as much as possible to many processed foods and to lure consumers with giant sodas and other supersized products that felt like bargains but came with hidden costs. Later, the medical dogma that fat was deadly lead to an explosion of extremely sweet low-fat products as well.
However we got here, it’s clear that the empty calories are contributing to epidemics of obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere. The food police should rethink chastising consumers and turn their attention on the true culprits who are dishing it out.