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Ultra-Processed Foods With High Added Sugar Very Prevalent in the American Diet

The typical American is consuming less healthy real foods and more unhealthy ultra-processed foods.  A recent study found that ultra-processed foods account for more than half of all calories consumed in the US diet and that those foods contribute almost 90% of added sugar intake.


The study defined ultra-processed foods were defined as foods containing salt, sugar, oils, and fats, as well as substances not commonly used in cooking, such as flavorings, emulsifiers, and other additives. They included mass-produced sugary drinks, packaged snacks, packaged baked goods, chicken and fish nuggets and other reconstituted meat products, and instant noodles and soups.


The researchers examined the dietary data of more than 9,000 people who took part in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They looked at average dietary content of added sugars as well as the proportion of participants who consumed more than 10% of their total calorie intake from this source. Ten percent is the maximum recommended limit.


Ultra-processed foods were found to make up just under 60% of calorie intake and contributed almost 90% of calorie intake from added sugars. Added sugars accounted for 1 in every 5 calories in the average ultra-processed food product, which was significantly higher than the calorie contribution of added sugars in processed, unprocessed, and minimally processed foods combined.


The researchers noted a strong linear association between the dietary content of ultra-processed foods and overall dietary intake of added sugars. They also found that the people who ate the most ultra-processed foods consumed more than 80% of calories from added sugars, which is much higher than the recommended maximum limit of 10%. In fact, only the participants whose ultra-processed food consumption was in the lowest 20% had an average daily-added sugar intake below the recommended maximum limit.


Researchers from Tufts University and the University of Sao Paulo conducted the study. It was published on March 9, 2016, in BMJ Open.


Consuming too much added sugar has been linked to obesity, weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk of tooth decay. If you’re concerned that your diet contains too many ultra-processed and processed foods, consider making lifestyle changes that include substituting snacks such as chips for nuts or cutting sugary drinks from your diet.

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