An interesting study, out of University of Sao Paulo, (with prominent American nutrition voice, Tufts’ Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian as co-author), took a look at the amount of ultra-processed food consumed by Americans. The study found that a whopping 58% of our calories come from ultra-processed food. That is a really big number, and, in my opinion, the root of our collective health problems. The study points to the high sugar content of most processed food, reporting that 90% of the added sugars in our diet come from these ultra-processed foods. A problem, no doubt, but there are many things about processed food that set off alarm bells. Doritos are ultra-processed, but contain zero grams of sugar. They should not get a free pass.
It's Not Just the Sugar
For a very thorough look at why we shouldn’t be too quick to blame the rise of obesity and diabetes over the last four decades solely on increased sugar consumption, please check out this thoughtful Eathropology post, “As the Calories Churn (Episode 2): Honey, It’s Not the Sugar.” For those of you who prefer the CliffsNotes version, here are two key sentences from Adele Hite's post:
“Teaspoons of added (caloric) sweeteners per person [per day] in our food supply (adjusted for waste) went from 21 in 1970 to 23 in 2010… the math doesn’t work out so well if we are trying to blame added sweeteners for 2/3 of the population gaining weight.”
This is an increase of about 34 calories per day.
Packaged, industrially produced foods are a package deal; a very bad deal. They are loaded with refined sugars and starches, laced with refined vegetable oils, and topped off with fillers, texturizers, additives, preservatives, and artificial ingredients that mess with our health. Exactly what does the worst or the most damage is still unknown. We need to minimize the entire package.
Eat Real Food
When I speak to mothers about feeding families, I emphasize vintage eating. I suggest that we need to get back to ‘real food.’
What is ‘real food?’
Whole, unprocessed food. Food that has one ingredient. Food that probably doesn’t come in a box. Food that is probably not made in a factory. Food you could buy from a farmers' market – produce, meat, dairy, eggs, nuts… Real food is back-to-basics.
If most of our calories could come from these vintage foods, rather than ultra-processed food, we would be on the road to vibrant health.
Minimize Ultra-processed Food
Let’s take a quick look at how the study authors defined ultra-processed food:
“Ultra-processed foods were defined as industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.”
This is a decent definition. If your food contains ingredients that no typical American keeps in her kitchen, or, as the authors word it, “substances not used in culinary preparations,” it is probably processed food. The study’s supplement goes into greater detail, providing examples of the kinds of food included in the ultra-processed category:
“Confectionery, soft drinks, sweetened juices and dairy drinks, powders for juices, sausages, chicken and fish nuggets or sticks and other pre-prepared frozen dishes, dried products such as cake mix, powdered soup, instant noodles, ready-seasonings, and an infinity of new products including packaged snacks, morning cereals, cereal bars, and ‘energy’ drinks. Sugar substitutes, sweeteners and all syrups (excluding 100% maple syrup). Breads and baked goods become ultra- processed products when, in addition to wheat flour, yeast, water, and salt, their ingredients include substances not used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives.”
This, indeed, is the bad stuff -- the stuff we should cut back on. But this categorization is decent, not perfect. The authors naturally bring current nutrition biases to their definition of ultra-processed food. Two major calorie sources that are processed are NOT included in their list of ultra-processed food: wheat flour and vegetable oil. Why? Because these two foods have an (undeserved) aura of health and are encouraged by our current nutrition paradigm. To point out that they are processed would undermine the conventional wisdom about what we should be eating.
Wheat flour, a popular ingredient in our modern conception of a ‘healthy’ diet, is finely ground – think pulverized into a very fine powder – and, thus, is quite processed. (Yes, even whole-wheat flour is pulverized.) Yet, when made into whole grain cereal or artisanal bread, flour is excluded from the ultra-processed category. The flour contained in industrially produced bread, cereal, crackers and desserts is counted as ultra-processed. So flour is split – some of it falls in the ultra-processed category, but some of it is excluded. To eat cereal grains in an unprocessed state, we would really have to eat items like boiled wheat berries, pearled barley, and steel cut oatmeal. Not that enticing, I know, but there is a key difference. The glycemic index (GI) for these intact preparations (where the grain remains whole) is much lower – less than half – than the GI for whole wheat bread or whole grain cereal; the latter spike blood sugar pretty much just like the white flour versions of these foods. You can find more about this in my post about grains.
Secondly, the authors have excluded ‘plant oils’ from the list of ultra-processed calories. I agree that some high quality plant oils, like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and nut oils, are not ultra-processed and provide excellent, vintage nutrition. We should eat more of these. But the common vegetable oils (corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, safflower, etc.) are highly processed products of our industrial food system. Producing them requires a factory with solvents, high heat, bleach, and deodorizers. These refined vegetable oils (and the margarines and spreads made from them) are some of the most processed ingredients in our modern food supply. They are inventions of food science and anything but vintage. Their presence in our food coincides with our decline in health; our consumption of added fats and oils increased 66% (over 200 calories/person/day) since 1970. This should make us suspicious of these newcomers. Yet, they are not counted as ultra-processed unless they are included in a food that has other ingredients that classify it as ultra-processed. So it would seem that 58% underestimates the average share of ultra-processed calories in our diets.
Vintage Meals - The Original Fast Food
What if we could flip that ratio around? Go back to 60% (or more!) of calories from real food? Not fancy real food – just real food.
Real food meals can be simple… Fry up a piece of meat or fish or a couple of eggs. Warm up some frozen veggies with butter. Add a handful of nuts or a few slices of cheese. Done.
Our current national dietary goals suggest tweaking our current paradigm – cutting back on added sugar and eating even less saturated fat in exchange for even more processed whole grain products and refined vegetable oils. Forget that. It isn’t working. How about a new – well, vintage – path back to health. Eat real food and the sugar diminishes naturally. In addition, you will remove other modern ingredients we cannot trust and add back time-tested favorites we can – like butter!