When it comes to food, the convenient option isn't always the healthiest one. Sometimes life just demands it. But the results of a new European study may make you think twice next time you reach for that prepackaged or frozen meal.
According to the new report in the online journal BMJ Open, more than half of all calories and almost 90% of all added sugar intake in the U.S. diet come from "ultra-processed" foods.
Ultra-processed foods are those which include — as well as added salt, sugar, oils and fats — any number of non-nutritional additives such as dyes, flavorings, emulsifiers and other products designed to imitate the "sensorial qualities" of "real" food. The new report says the most commonly consumed ultra-processed foods are fruit beverages and milk-based drinks, soft drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, salty snacks, frozen and shelf-stable plates as well as pizza and breakfast cereals.
To get a clearer picture on how ultra-processed foods contribute to the intake of added sugars in the U.S. diet, researchers examined data collected from more than 9,000 people in the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) — an ongoing nationally representative cross sectional survey of U.S. citizens.
The researchers compared the amount of added sugars in the average diet with that eaten by individuals who received more than 10% of their total energy intake — the maximum recommended limit — from this source. It was found that ultra-processed foods were responsible for more than half of total calorie intake — just under 60% — and contributed almost 90% of energy intake from added sugars.
In the average ultra-processed food product, added sugars accounted for 1 in every 5 calories — a far higher percentage than that in processed or unprocessed foods or in minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients, including table sugar, combined. "The content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods (21.1% of calories) was eightfold higher than in processed foods (2.4%) and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together (3.7%).
Many leading health organizations — including the World Health Organization, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, the American Heart Association and the U.K. National Health Service have long advised that excess sugar increases the risk of diabetes, obesity (leading to hypertension and cardiovascular disease), cancer and tooth decay. "Foods higher in added sugars," the researchers warn, "are often a source of empty calories with minimum essential nutrients or dietary fiber, which displace more nutrient-dense foods and lead, in turn, to simultaneously overfed and undernourished individuals."
It's clear that our sugar addiction is being fed from the outside — "more than three-quarters of the sugar and high fructose corn syrup available for human consumption in the USA were used by the food industry," the team says. "This suggests that food products manufactured by the industry could have an important role in the excess added sugar consumption in the USA." It's no surprise then that previous studies have pointed to the ineffectiveness of food industry self-regulation. Maybe the solution to healthy eating is already right there — in our own hands.