Processed vs. Ultra-processed Food, and Why It Matters to Your Health

The difference between “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods might sound like an issue best left to linguists or hungry English teachers. But for the sake of your health, it’s worth understanding.

That’s because some of those foods are just fine ­– and some can harm you.

What is the difference? Definitions vary, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture says anything that changes the fundamental nature of an agricultural product – heating, freezing, dicing, juicing – is a processed food.

Which means some can be quite good for you.

“Those little baby carrots that you get in a supermarket – that’s a processed food,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, registered dietitian and distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. So are frozen vegetables, or even broccoli that’s been cut into florets.

Ultra-processed food takes things further. Nutritionists started using the term about 10 years ago, and again, definitions vary. A common diet classification system called NOVA sums it up as “snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food.”

Examples would include chips, soft drinks and sweetened breakfast cereals. “Things that are packaged and pretty much ready to eat with little work at all,” Kris-Etherton said. “Things like rice dishes, pasta dishes – all you have to do is add water and put them in the microwave.”

Ultra-processed foods, also called highly processed foods, can be cheap, convenient and tasty. But they usually have lots of refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and salt – not to mention industrial additives.

They also tend to pack a lot of calories into each bite. That means you’re likely to eat a lot before you feel full, said Kris-Etherton, chair of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.

A growing pile of research suggests ultra-processed foods – which make up half the diet of U.S. adults, according to recent research – might cause serious health problems. A small 2019 study found people given ultra-processed food ate more and gained more weight than people on a diet of minimally processed food. Other studies have linked ultra-processed foods with obesity, high blood pressure, cancer and death from all causes.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, said the basic problem with ultra-processed foods is they have not been designed with health in mind. Manufacturers prefer to make taste, cost, safety, shelf life and mouthfeel the priority.

When such factors are the goal, thousands of trace nutrients get stripped out, he said. Additives such as emulsifiers and stabilizers are tossed in. Those industrial ingredients are considered safe, but their long-term effects are not known.

Heavy processing also strips out fiber, altering how the body digests food and affecting friendly gut bacteria, he said.

Mozaffarian stopped short of equating “ultra-processed” with “bad.”

“In the modern world, we’re going to need processed foods, and even ultra-processed foods, that are healthy,” he said. But he wants manufacturers to rethink their goals even as researchers try to pinpoint how such foods affect people.

“From a scientific perspective, we don’t have all the shades of grey understood, but we certainly know enough to start making healthier processed foods now.”

Meanwhile, how should a careful eater face an ultra-processed world? “What a lot of dietitians will say is, ‘Shop the perimeter of a supermarket,'” Kris-Etherton said. “That means stay away from the aisles that do have a lot of the processed food, especially ultra-processed foods.”

But you can find healthy choices throughout the store, she said. When choosing packaged bread, which is considered ultra-processed, skip white bread in favor of something with lots of whole grains. And if you’re making a sandwich, choose a lean protein source, a nut butter or an avocado. “What it boils down to is, don’t eat it with lunch meats like bologna that are high in salt and unhealthy fats.”

Kris-Etherton acknowledged that for most people, “it’s really hard not to have any processed foods, let alone any ultra-processed foods, in your diet. But you can still make wise food choices by being aware and reading the nutrition information on the package label.”

Mozaffarian said good nutrition is more than just counting calories. Food affects our genes, modifies metabolism, alters brain responses and more. “And those things together, in a really amazingly powerful way,” influence how much we eat, how much we weigh and our overall health, he said.

“Humans are not buckets, where we have a hole in the top and a hole in the bottom, and we pour calories in and calories come out. We’re complex organisms.”

Source: American Heart Association


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Today’s Comic

Journey of 5 Common Foods from Whole to Processed

Jessica Branch wrote . . . . . . . . .

Different foods take turns being the dietary demon du jour, and currently, processed and “ultraprocessed” foods are the latest to come under the hot glare of scientific scrutiny. It’s certainly warranted.

Research has linked ultraprocessed foods to a higher risk for obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Intriguing new work even suggests that they may actually encourage overeating, possibly because their particular mashup of ingredients disrupts the hormones that control hunger, or it scrambles the gut-brain signals that tell us how much to eat.

Some processing is relatively benign and even enhances healthy properties. But generally speaking, the farther your food gets from its original “whole” version, the less good it is for you.

We’ve illustrated the journey of a few common foods from their least processed to their ultraprocessed forms to show you exactly where and how the nutritional degradation occurs.


Chicken

Usually what you see is what you get when you buy a whole bird or parts, but check the ingredients list. Some brands are plumped up with broth, salt, and various flavors (up to 3 percent by weight for bone-in and 8 percent for boneless). Once you take the chicken home, the seasoning and cooking you do is considered to be a type of processing.

Ground Chicken

By law, it must be entirely made from the type of poultry specified. Per the USDA’s preference (though not law), it should contain “whole muscle material” (drumsticks, thighs, necks, etc.), and other components, like skin and fat, should be present in “natural proportions.” Other animal parts, like giblets, should be excluded. If the label reads “ground chicken meat,” it can’t contain any skin, and ground chicken breast must be solely breast meat.

Chicken Sausage

The meat and spice mixture that makes up sausage is often stuffed into a casing made from pork. Chicken sausage may have nitrites or nitrates added to prevent bacterial growth and give it color and flavor. These additives, even the natural-sounding “celery powder,” can convert into potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines. Plus, sodium levels tend to be very high.

Chicken Nuggets

This finger food usually consists primarily of breast meat (with or without rib meat) sometimes augmented by dark meat or skin for flavor and texture, and sometimes marinated for flavor. The meat is chopped and formed into “nugget” shapes, which are then seasoned, breaded (generally with refined flour), and fried, often with extra fat and sodium added along the way.

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Peanuts in the Shell

After the peanut plants are pulled out of the ground, they’re left to dry in the field for a few days. The peanuts are then removed from the vine and may be further dried under forced hot air. If salted, they have probably been soaked in a brine and dried again.

Roasted Peanuts

Dry-roasted, packaged, ready-to-eat peanuts are shelled, roasted, blanched with hot air or water to remove the skins, and split into halves. If they’re oil-roasted, they’re blanched first and then roasted in oil (coconut, cottonseed, or peanut; the ingredients list will say). Both dry- and oil-roasted peanuts may contain salt. Nutritionally, both types are similar to fresh peanuts in the shell—except for that added sodium.

Peanut Butter

Some of the stuff that comes in jars is minimally processed—it might be ground peanuts with a dash of salt—so you’ll need to stir before use. But many brands on the shelf include hydrogenated oils, in part to keep the peanut butter from separating. And many also contain added sugars.

Peanut Butter Protein Bar

Peanut butter is little more than flavoring in many protein bars, such as Clif Builders Crunchy Peanut Butter Protein Bar. It contains 20 grams of protein, but much of that is from its first ingredient, soy protein isolate, which is protein powder that has been extracted from the soybean and concentrated. Next comes an avalanche of sugars. You don’t get actual peanuts until halfway through the list, which also has peanut flour, salt, soy lecithin, and other additives.

* * * * * *

Rolled Oats

Used for oatmeal, rolled oats are lightly processed to make them edible. The oat groats (grain kernels) are steamed, flattened, and dried. They still contain all three parts of the grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm—so they retain all of the fiber and other nutrients. (Even less processed are steel-cut oats, which are simply oat groats sliced into small pieces.) You can buy them with no added sugar, salt, or other ingredients.

Instant Oatmeal

To make oats “instant,” they’re pressed thinner and steamed longer than rolled oats. They’re still a whole grain but can be digested more quickly, which could potentially lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. This processing is light, but more processed versions add sugars, flavorings, and preservatives.

Honey Nut Oat O’s Cereals

Whether name-brand or generic, these healthy-sounding cereals are highly processed. Though the main ingredient is whole oat flour, some may contain three or more forms of sugar, such as sugar, honey, and brown-sugar syrup. Other additives may include salt, oils, and vitamin E as a preservative. Still more egregious, there may be no actual nuts, only “natural almond flavor.”

Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies

The typical packaged cookies are likely to be made primarily with white wheat flour rather than whole oats, and may contain processed ingredients you probably wouldn’t include if you were making them from scratch, such as hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, whey protein concentrate, and soy lecithin.

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Tomatoes

Canned Tomatoes

Picked at peak ripeness, tomatoes destined for canning are washed, prepared (peeled by means of steam or chemicals, then packed whole, diced, crushed, puréed, etc.), and put in liquid (usually water or tomato juice). The cans are heated to kill any bacteria, and then cooled. This processing makes lycopene (an antioxidant in tomatoes that’s linked to a lower incidence of heart disease, prostate cancer, and other diseases) easier to absorb. Additives may include salt, herbs and spices, citric acid, and calcium chloride.

Tomato Pasta Sauce

Like canned tomatoes, those used in jarred or canned sauce are harvested when ripe, then cooked down. Depending on the recipe, however, there may be a lot more than tomatoes in the jar—and not all of it healthy. In CR’s recent test of jarred sauces, about half contained 400 mg of sodium or more per half-cup serving. Many had added sugars, too.

Ketchup

Typical ketchups, made largely of tomato concentrate plus sugars, salt, vinegar, and various spices, can pack a lot of sugar and sodium into a tiny serving. Heinz’s classic, for instance, lists tomato concentrate as its first ingredient, but its third and fourth are high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup, followed by salt and natural flavoring. One tablespoon has 4 grams of sugars and 160 mg of sodium.

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Wheat Berries

These are whole-wheat kernels straight off the stalk with the husk removed. Boiling them—which is considered a form of processing—is an easy way to make them edible.

Whole-Wheat Pasta

Both regular and whole-wheat pasta are often made from durum wheat flour (which is higher in protein than some other types of flour), sometimes enriched with iron and B vitamins. But whole-wheat pasta is less processed because it’s made from whole-wheat durum flour, which means it retains the fiber and all the other nutrients in the whole grain.

100% Whole-Wheat Bread

The whole grain in this bread is whole wheat in flour form, and it’s an excellent source of fiber. Homemade bread may consist of little more than flour, yeast, water, and a bit of salt. But packaged whole-wheat breads may contain sugar, wheat gluten, preservatives such as calcium propionate (to prevent mold), and unspecified natural flavors.

“Wheat” or “Honey Wheat” Bread

Wheat bread is most definitely not the same as whole-wheat bread. It may contain some whole-grain flour, but it’s primarily white bread. Made with mostly refined wheat flour, its often lengthy ingredients list may also include sugar, dough conditioners such as sodium, and stearoyl lactylate. A slice usually has just 1 gram of fiber; a whole-wheat slice has 2 to 3 grams.

Source: Consumer Report

Processed Foods Increase Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Alan Mozes wrote . . . . . . . . .

Store-bought chicken nuggets, jelly donuts and energy bars may taste delicious. But a large, new study warns that the more of these and other highly processed foods you consume, the greater your risk for type 2 diabetes.

Every 10% increase in the amount of “ultra-processed” food translated into a 15% increase in the risk for developing diabetes, according to the French study.

Lead author Bernard Srour noted that his team previously established a link between higher consumption of ultra-processed food and a higher risk for cancer, heart disease, depression and premature death.

Srour is a postdoctoral researcher in nutritional epidemiology at the University of Paris.

So what exactly are ultra-processed foods? Srour described them as pre-packaged products subjected to a wide array of industrial manipulations.

They may contain preservatives, artificial flavors, texturizing agents, food additives, sugars, nonsugar sweeteners, and coloring.

Some examples, he said, include instant noodles, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, candy, margarine, pastries, breakfast cereals and energy bars. Also, flavored milk, pre-seasoned vegetables, “instant” sauces, ready-to-heat pizza, and purported “health” products like powdered or fortified meals.

Such convenience foods are popular across Western developed nations, Srour’s team said, representing between 25 and 60% of the modern diet.

At the same time, type 2 diabetes is a growing public health concern. The team noted that an estimated 425 million people had diabetes worldwide in 2017. That’s projected to rise to 629 million by 2045.

So why might ultra-processed foods be fueling that increase? The authors say that their low nutritional value due to high levels of fats, salt and sugar are only part of the story. Problematic chemical compounds that disrupt and degrade the digestive (metabolic) process are implicated as well.

Packaging materials may also be troublesome, they said.

For the study, researchers analyzed records of nearly 105,000 French adults between 2009 and 2019. Average age was about 43. Participants completed about six 24-hour food diaries over six years.

After stacking diets up against yearly health questionnaires, the team determined that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a significantly higher risk for diabetes.

The researchers acknowledge that ultra-processed food consumption was generally higher among smokers, the obese, less active participants, and those who ate more red and processed meats and less whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

In essence, that means other bad lifestyle habits could drive up diabetes risk as well. So, while Srour said it is “very plausible” that ultra-processed food ups diabetes risk, he noted that “a direct causal link could not be established from this single study.” His team plans more research to explore the connection.

Connie Diekman is a food and nutrition consultant and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

She said it’s important to view the findings in context.

“The word ‘processed’ has become the new ‘food villain,’ when in fact all food is processed,” said Diekman. “Milk and yogurt are processed, bread and pasta are processed, meat, eggs and beans are also processed, since processing is necessary for growing, picking, packing and shipping of food.”

“Processing is also needed for preservation,” she added. “Milk would be subject to significant bacteria without processing, and without freezing and canning, food availability would be very limited.”

Diekman pointed out some foods are more processed than others. “Potato chips are more processed than frozen potatoes, and frozen or canned green beans are more processed than fresh. But that processing is not the villain. It is the food choices we make.”

Her advice? Build three-quarters of your menu around plant foods — fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And make the remaining one-quarter lean protein and low-fat dairy.

Also, she recommended using plant-based fats like canola, olive, soy or sunflower oils. “Choose high-fat and high-sugar foods after you have consumed the foods that promote health, and not in place of them,” she said. “And don’t worry about ‘processing.’ Worry about the food choices you make.”

The findings were published online in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: HealthDay


Today’s Comic

‘No Nitrates Added’ Labels Are Often Misleading

Allison Aubrey wrote . . . . . . . . .

Packing a turkey sandwich in your kid’s lunchbox, or serving up bacon or hot dogs?

When shopping for processed meats, many health-conscious consumers look for products with words like “no nitrates added” or “uncured” on the packaging. But we may have been misled, experts say.

A new report finds that deli meats with those labels actually contain similar levels of nitrates as meats that don’t carry these labels.

Part of the explanation lies in federal labeling rules for processed meats. When hot dog or bacon manufacturers use natural curing agents, such as celery powder, in lieu of synthetic sodium nitrite, they can be required to use terms such as “no nitrates added” and “uncured.” In other cases, food manufacturers may add these claims voluntarily, perhaps for marketing reasons.

The “labels could make people think these meats are healthier,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “But our tests show they are not.”

Consumer Reports tested 31 deli meat products including roast beef, salami, turkey and ham. The products included both name brands and store brands.

“Deli meats carrying these labels pose the same health risks as traditionally cured meats, because the nitrate and nitrite levels are essentially the same,” Vallaeys says.

Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest submitted a petition Thursday to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urging the agency to revise its labeling rules.

“These claims are absolutely misleading for consumers,” says Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The label says the product has no nitrite or nitrate added,” Sorscher says. But the reality is that “they’ve simply switched to a different source.”

The USDA told NPR that the agency will review the petition and make a decision based upon its analysis.

“There is little evidence that preserving meats using celery … is any healthier than other added nitrites,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

A body of evidence suggests that processed meats are linked to elevated cancer risk. Experts think part of the problem is the nitrites used to cure them. “All nitrites can be converted in the food, during cooking, or in the body to nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic,” Mozaffarian explains.

Source: npr

Opinion: Why Ditching Processed Foods Won’t Be Easy — Barriers To Cooking From Scratch

Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton wrote . . . . . . . . .

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Michael Pollan, one of America’s most influential food writers, famously advised more than a decade ago. This pithy advice is perhaps the clearest distillation of a food philosophy that is so intuitive that it has become ubiquitous. To fix the problems in the food system, we need to consume whole, fresh foods grown on a farm rather than the engineered pseudofoods that populate the interior aisles of supermarkets.

A recent study now offers hard scientific evidence in support of Pollan’s message. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health conducted a randomized, controlled trial, the first to directly assess the effects of processed food on people’s health as compared with whole foods. Participants were randomly assigned a diet for a two-week period. One group was given a diet composed of ultra-processed food, while the other group ate unprocessed or minimally processed food. When the two-week period ended, the groups switched to the opposite diet. When people were on the ultra-processed diet, they ate an average of 508 calories more per day and gained an average of 2 pounds over the two-week period, providing evidence that there may be something about processed food that drives people to overeat and gain weight.

The study confirms what we’ve been hearing for years: Cooking from scratch and eating “real food” is better and healthier. The problem is that knowing this doesn’t make it any more doable for the average family.

Families in the United States spend quite a bit of time cooking, with many cooking almost every day. The most recent surveys suggest that Americans are actually cooking slightly more than they were a decade ago. But a large proportion of our diets — almost 60% of total calories — comes from ultra-processed foods. People living in poor households consume more processed foods than wealthier people, but the amount of processed foods that Americans eat is increasing overall.

Between 2012 and 2017, we conducted interviews and ethnographic observations with more than 150 mothers and grandmothers of young children from all walks of life. All were working hard to feed their families, often under very difficult circumstances. Their stories are a stark illustration of where Pollan’s advice, seemingly simple, falls short. While many people frame food decisions as a relatively simple matter of personal choice, our new book, Pressure Cooker, shows what it really takes to put a home-cooked meal on the table.

First, it takes money. Healthier diets — diets rich in fresh produce and lean proteins — generally cost more. The researchers who conducted the processed-food study recognize this: They note that the unprocessed diet they fed participants cost 40% more than the ultra-processed diet. And lots of American families don’t have more money to spend on food. Many of the families in our study were experiencing food insecurity, meaning that they lacked food to feed everyone in their household. Across the United States, one out of every eight people does not have enough food to eat, and many more do not have enough money to regularly afford healthy foods.

Lots of families in our study cooked almost every night, in part because it was the cheapest option. But when their cupboards ran bare, they ate ramen and hot dogs, not a pan of roast chicken and vegetables, as food gurus recommend. Mothers said that if they had more money, they’d buy fresh fruit for their kids, but this was just an occasional splurge, not an everyday reality. Even the more financially stable middle-class mothers in our study talked about making trade-offs between the foods they wanted to buy for their families and the foods they felt they could afford.

Cooking from scratch takes time. The photos of the unprocessed meals in the study represent hours of labor: the labor of shopping (often at multiple stores), researching recipes, chopping vegetables and prepping ingredients, and, of course, cooking. Researchers find that it takes extra time to cook the way that food reformers advise. Not surprisingly, it is usually women who take on this additional labor. And although women today spend less time in the kitchen than women did in the 1960s, they actually have less leisure time, as expectations around work and parenting have ramped up.

As real wages have stagnated, households often depend on every adult family member working, sometimes in multiple jobs, to make ends meet. And nonstandard employment arrangements, with unpredictable scheduling, are increasingly common, especially for low-wage workers. It’s hard to plan meals when you don’t even know who will be home for dinner. The middle-class families in our study had more resources and more options but felt completely overwhelmed by hectic schedules and competing demands that left little time to cook.

Finally, cooking from scratch requires resources that food experts take for granted. At a minimum, it requires a working stove and enough money to pay the electric bill to run the stove. One family in our book experienced homelessness during the time we spent with the family. Patricia Washington, her daughter and her two grandchildren moved into a hotel room after being evicted when they couldn’t keep up with both the rent and the heating bill. Dinners consisted of frozen pizzas or TV dinners heated in the microwave. Although most of the families in our study had a relatively stable place to live, many lacked basic kitchen tools like sharp knives or cutting boards, which made chopping vegetables both tedious and dangerous. Like Washington, some didn’t have a kitchen table or enough chairs for everyone in the family.

The idea that we have a responsibility to prepare wholesome, nourishing meals is appealing, and now there is more evidence to support that. For some food gurus, the decision to simmer homemade spaghetti and meatballs on the stove rather than heat up a can of ravioli in the microwave is evidence of a person’s moral fortitude.

But inequality is baked into our food system. If good health depends on eating real food, it’s time to make sure all families get the support they need to eat well. This means making healthy food more affordable, but it also means addressing the other challenges families face: for example, by guaranteeing workers a living wage and fair working conditions and by investing in families through universal free school lunch and subsidized child care, so that parents don’t feel like they’re doing it all on their own.

Source: npr