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Americans Are Eating More Ultra-Processed Food Than Ever

Over the course of the last two decades there have been changes in the American diet. A recent study found that Americans now eat more ultra-processed foods than ever (53.5% of calories), and have decreased their consumption of minimally processed foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat). This is not good for health.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity and some chronic diseases. It is also not good for the gut microbiome (the community of millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the intestines). Ultra-processed foods include sugary breakfast cereals, sweets, frozen pizza, soda, fast food, salty snacks, canned soup. They can contain preservatives, additives, artificial ingredients, and emulsifiers (which are linked to gut inflammation).

The study by New York University researchers found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57 percent at the end (2017-2018). They found that ready-to-eat or just heat meals (e.g., frozen dinners) increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks (e.g. soda) declined.

Most of the decrease in minimally processed whole foods (from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories in two decades) was mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy. And who increased their intake of ultra-processed foods the most during this time? Older adults (age 60 and over), who also decreased their intake of whole foods the most over 2 decades.

Bottom line: try to increase your intake of real whole foods, and decrease your intake of ultra-processed foods. This would benefit your gut microbiome (feed the good gut microbes with whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts) and your health.

From Science Daily - Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased over the past two decades across nearly all segments of the U.S. population, according to a new study by researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health. 

"The overall composition of the average U.S. diet has shifted towards a more processed diet. This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases," said Filippa Juul, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Public Health and the study's lead author. "The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic."

Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat, include additives, and are largely devoid of whole foods. Previous studies by researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health have found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity and heart disease.

In the new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Juul and her colleagues analyzed dietary data from nearly 41,000 adults who took part in the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 through 2018. Participants were asked what they ate in the past 24 hours, and the researchers sorted the foods reported into four categories:

    1. Minimally processed foods (whole foods), such as vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, and dairy
    2. Processed culinary ingredients, such as olive oil, butter, sugar, and salt
    3. Processed foods, such as cheese, canned fish, and canned beans
    4. Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen pizza, soda, fast food, sweets, salty snacks, canned soup, and most breakfast cereals

The researchers then calculated the percentage of calories consumed from each food group.

Ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57 percent at the end (2017-2018). The intake of ready-to-eat or heat meals, like frozen dinners, increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined. In contrast, the consumption of whole foods decreased from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories, mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy.

People across nearly all demographic groups, regardless of income, increased their consumption of ultra-processed foods, with the exception of Hispanic adults, who ate significantly less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared with non-Hispanic white and Black adults. College graduates also ate significantly less ultra-processed foods. Notably, older adults (aged 60+) experienced the sharpest increase in consuming ultra-processed foods: this age group ate the least ultra-processed foods and most whole foods at the beginning of the period studied, yet ate the most ultra-processed foods and least whole foods at the end.

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