PhotoYour local supermarket offers a rich bounty of food choices, a variety that was unimaginable 100 years ago. In spite of that, most of us seem to gravitate to what's cheap and easy.

As a result, researchers say the average American gets too many of his or her calories from “ultra processed” food.

What is that, exactly? Researchers publishing their study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) define it this way: “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.”

In other words, ingredients not typically used in food but used, in this case, because they imitate the real thing, but are either cheaper, or have a much longer shelf life.

The study included nearly 10,000 people of all ages, who could recall everything they ate in a 24-hour period. The study concluded that Americans get 57.9% of their calories from ultra processed food, with nearly 90% of their energy intake coming from added sugars.

Way over the limit

U.S. dietary guidelines call for limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of calories.

The study determined that the added sugar content in ultra processed food made up over 21% of caloric intake and is eight times higher than the added sugar content in processed food. The researchers maintain that for every 5% in proportional energy intake from ultra processed foods, there was a corresponding 1% increase in added sugar consumption.

Perhaps most disturbing is that this trend is widespread. Just over 82% of U.S. consumers who consumed the most ultra processed food exceeded the recommended limit of no more than 10% of calories from added sugar.

According to Emma Gray, writing in the BMJ Blog, examples of ultra processed food include most soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, packaged baked food, confectionery and desserts, soups, chicken and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meal products.

Gray writes that many health authorities, including the American Heart Association and U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee, have concluded that too much added sugar not only contributes to obesity, but also diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay.

What to do

How do you avoid too much added sugar in your diet? According to the American Heart Association (AHA), you have to be something of a detective.

On the Nutrition Facts label, sugars – both natural and added – are listed in grams. The AHA says there are four calories per gram, so 15 grams of sugar per serving adds up to 60 calories – just from sugar.

Another way to avoid too much added sugar is to prepare meals with lots of fresh produce. You'll find it in your local supermarket, along with the frozen pizza.


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