Convenient and tasty, ultra-processed food can be a danger to your diet
Columnist Julie Garden-Robinson explains that consuming ultra-processed foods can promote a range of health issues.
“I have never tasted these treats,” I said to my husband.
I was in a grocery store standing next to a large display of packaged baked goods. I was looking at the yellow sponge cakes stuffed with marshmallow filling. I bet you know what I am describing. They have been in existence more than 90 years.
“We used to have those after school regularly,” he commented.
“My mom would not buy these,” I replied. “I felt kind of deprived.”
When I was young, we had baked goods in our home, but they were always homemade. Bread from the store was a big treat for us.
I was curious about what I had missed my entire life. The box was beckoning me, so I added one to our cart. My husband looked at me a little strangely.
After dinner, I relaxed in my easy chair and opened the cellophane wrapper. Wow, this is going to be good, I thought to myself.
“This tastes like a chemistry lab,” I told my husband after taking a bite and setting down the food.
Turns out, my mom was right, as usual.
“Who is going to eat the rest of them?” he asked.
“I guess you get the other 11,” I said. “Don’t eat them all at once.”
I would put the treats I tried in the “ultra-processed food” category. Unfortunately, nutrition researchers are finding that eating too many ultra-processed foods can promote health issues ranging from weight gain to chronic disease.
“Processed” food sometimes gets a bad rap, but most of us eat some processed food every day and that’s OK. Processed food includes frozen food, dried food, canned food, flour or any type of food that has undergone some sort of transformation to move the food from its initial state to a form that is more convenient. Processing food extends the shelf life, too.
On the other hand, “ultra-processed foods” contain ingredients that are most associated with industrial manufacturing. For example, ultra-processed food often includes high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, preservatives, artificial colors and other ingredients. Instant soup, carbonated beverages, chips, packaged cookies and many other foods are part of the ultra-processed foods category.
In a controlled study with 20 participants, researchers studied whether research participants ate more or less ultra-processed food versus unprocessed food. They lived in a controlled space, and all the research participants exercised 60 minutes a day. The diets were designed carefully by dietitians to be similar in calories, sugars, fiber, fat, salt and carbohydrates.
For two weeks, the healthy volunteers were provided either the unprocessed food diet or ultra-processed food diet. During the second week, they crossed over to the other diet. They could eat as much as they wanted of any of the foods they were provided.
While on the ultra-processed food diet, the participants ate 500 extra calories a day, and on average, they gained 2 pounds in two weeks. When the participants were switched to the unprocessed food diet, they lost 2 pounds.
In other studies, ultra-processed foods have promoted weight gain especially around the abdomen or waist. Eating more ultra-processed foods was associated with low HDL (good) cholesterol levels and an increase in metabolic syndrome, which can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Another study found an increase in depression with increased consumption of ultra-processed food.
What can we learn from this research? For me, I will ration or discard that box of treats before my husband eats them.
- Eat foods closer to their natural state. Consume more dry beans, eggs, meat and fish without added ingredients. Aim for foods that have undergone less processing, such as whole-grain oatmeal, brown rice and whole wheat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and canned or frozen vegetables and fruits without added ingredients such as sugar and salt.
- Look for fewer ingredients on the ingredient statement. Manufacturers are required to list all the ingredients found in food in descending order by weight. You should not have to be a food chemist in order to pronounce the words. Are there lots of preservatives and other additives? The function is described after the word.
- Read and compare nutrition facts labels. Compare the sodium, added sugar and other nutrients.
- Cook more often at home. Make your own snacks such as popcorn, dried apples or fruit leather.
- Choose water more often instead of soda or other sweetened beverage. Have milk with meals.
Here’s a recipe with lots of whole-food ingredients courtesy of the Iowa State Eat Smart Spend Smart program.
Oatmeal muffins with fruit and nuts
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 2 1/2 cups oatmeal (quick or old-fashioned)
- 2 eggs
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
- 2 tablespoons oil (canola or other oil of choice)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
- 1/4 cup nonfat milk
- 1 medium apple, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, cherries)
Preheat oven to 350 F. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add oats and boil for one minute. Remove from heat and let stand five minutes. In a mixing bowl, beat with a fork: eggs, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, oil, baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and milk. Stir in cooked oatmeal, apples and dried fruit. In a small bowl, stir together remaining 1 tablespoon brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Lightly coat a muffin tin with cooking spray. Divide oatmeal mixture into 12 muffins. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mixture on top of the muffins. Bake for 30 minutes or until the center is set, and the top is lightly browned. Let muffins sit for five minutes before serving. Store leftover muffins in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
Makes six servings (two muffins per serving). Each serving has 260 calories, 9 grams (g) fat, 7 g protein, 40 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber and 115 milligrams sodium.
Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter