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Consumption of ultra-processed foods rising in U.S., study finds

Over the last 20 years, ultra-processed foods have made up an increasing portion of people's diets in the United States, according to a new study. Photo by Billie Jean Shaw/UPI
Over the last 20 years, ultra-processed foods have made up an increasing portion of people's diets in the United States, according to a new study. Photo by Billie Jean Shaw/UPI

Oct. 14 (UPI) -- People in the United States have consumed increasing levels of ultra-processed foods over the last 20 years, crowding out more nutritious options of a better diet, a study published Thursday by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.

This rise in consumption of industrially manufactured foods made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars and hydrogenated fats, is occurring across nearly all segments of the population, the data showed.

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Packaged, processed and restaurant foods account for about 70% of all sodium consumed in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which on Wednesday issued voluntary guidance for food producers and restaurants to cut back on salt to reduce sodium intake across the country by 12%.

"The overall composition of the average U.S. diet has shifted toward a more processed diet," study co-author Filippa Juul said in a press release.

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"This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases," said Juul, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Public Health in New York City.

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Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat products that include additives and are largely devoid of whole foods, according to Harvard University.

These foods, examples of which are frozen meals and soft drinks, also may contain additives, such as artificial colors and flavors or preservatives, the researchers at the school say.

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High consumption of these products has been linked with an increased risk for obesity and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Despite the health risks, earlier studies suggest that these foods account for up to half of the average diet in the United States among adults, and even more for children and teens.

For this study, Juul and her colleagues analyzed dietary data from nearly 41,000 adults who took part in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing assessment of health, from 2001 through 2018.

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Study participants were asked what they ate in the past 24 hours, and researchers sorted the foods reported into four categories.

These included minimally processed foods, or whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, meat and dairy, as well as processed culinary ingredients such as olive oil, butter, sugar and salt.

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The other categories were processed foods, such as cheese, canned fish and canned beans, and 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 to 57% of calories consumed in 2017-18 from 54% in 2001-2002, the data showed.

The intake of ready-to-eat or heat meals such as frozen dinners increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined.

Conversely, consumption of whole foods decreased to 27% from 33% of calories over the same period, due primarily 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 compared with non-Hispanic White and Black adults, the data showed.

Adults age 60 and older saw the sharpest increase in consuming ultra-processed foods.

"In the current industrial food environment, most of the foods that are marketed to us are in fact industrial formulations that are far removed from whole foods," Juul said.

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