From aisle to ailment: 73% of U.S. food supply turns ultra-processed

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ultra-processed-foods(NaturalHealth365)  If the saying “you are what you eat” bears any truth, does this mean most Americans have to watch their health turn into the equivalent of ultra-processed junk?

A new study currently available for preprint and partly funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association recently revealed some alarming statistics about what is in our country’s grocery stores.

New database reveals that nearly 3 out of 4 items in grocery stores are now “ultra-processed”

The preprint study from Ravandi et al. starts by acknowledging that “highly processed food like packaged products, processed meat, and sweetened soft drinks has been increasingly associated with unhealthy diet.”  Indeed, a prospective study published earlier this year in the Lancet revealed that “higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with a greater risk of overall cancer and specifically ovarian and brain cancer as well as increased risk of overall, ovarian, and breast cancer-associated mortality.”  Importantly, the Lancet paper found that the concerning correlation between ultra-processed food consumption and cancer held strong even after the researchers adjusted for a “range of socio-demographic, smoking status, physical activity, and key dietary factors.”

In an attempt to help make sense of this food fiasco, the authors of the preprint study created a database known as GroceryDB, which contains information on more than 50,000 food items sold by popular American grocery stores such as Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market.  The goal of GroceryDB, the authors write, “is to empower consumers and policymakers with systematic access to the degree of processing characterizing the foods they select, and the potential alternatives in their food environment.”

Based on an analysis of their new database, the researchers concluded that a whopping 73% of the U.S. food supply is “ultra-processed.”  To add insult to injury, their analysis indicates that ultra-processed foods are more than HALF as cheap, on average, than minimally-processed alternatives.

For context, Harvard Medical School defines minimally processed foods as those that are in their natural (or nearly natural) state and include things like “carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon, and raw, unsalted nuts.”  Conversely, ultra-processed foods “have many added ingredients” like sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, stabilizers, flavors, or preservatives and, indeed, are made mostly from substances extracted from foods.  Classic examples of ultra-processed foods include frozen packaged meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

Not that it’s hard to find an example of ultra-processed or highly processed foods, unfortunately: just go to any checkout line of virtually any store in America and witness the rows and rows of candy, crackers, chips, and more.

Avoiding the food marketing riff-raff: 5 helpful strategies for healthier grocery shopping

Heading to the grocery store soon and hoping to make healthier choices in your grocery budget?  Here are five simple ideas from Penn Medicine:

  1. Plan ahead:  Know what you need to buy and write it down so that you’ll be less likely to waste time wandering the aisles, where you run the risk of being tempted by clever marketing.
  2. Eat before you go:  We tend to be more impulsive with our food purchasing choices when we shop on an empty stomach, as supported by 2019 research from the University of Dundee in Scotland.
  3. Learn how to read labels:  Look specifically for things like the amount of added sugar and whether the product contains artificial ingredients, dyes, preservatives, etc.
  4. Consider frozen:  This can help cut down on costs associated with buying minimally processed foods (but maybe skip the canned goods if you’re concerned about BPA in the liner)
  5. Buy in bulk:  Space and budget permitting, buying in bulk can save you a lot in terms of resources – plus, we all know how inspiring it is to see a pantry, freezer, or fridge stacked with healthy food options!  Great things to buy in bulk include organic frozen fruits and vegetables, olive and coconut oils, raw nuts, and dried beans and lentils.

Finally, whenever possible, another great way to avoid these ultra-processed foods is to shop in places that don’t sell these things by the truckload.  Your local natural foods store or farmer’s market are excellent resources!  (Of course, even natural food stores can sell unhealthy processed foods marketed as “healthy,” so again, be mindful of the label.)

Sources for this article include:

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