Findings from a new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University suggest that consumers are being negatively affected by the high amount of ultra-processed foods they eat on a regular basis.
According to the findings, many packaged foods are exposing consumers to high levels of saturated fat, calories, salt, and sugar, all of which leave consumers vulnerable to obesity and other health concerns.
“To say that our food supply is highly processed won’t shock anyone, but it’s important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers,” said researcher Abigail Baldridge. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”
What’s in our food?
To get a better idea of the nutrition information hiding in plain sight on packaged foods, the researchers utilized the NOVA Food Classification System, which doesn’t look at specific nutrition facts, but rather ranks foods based on how processed they are.
The study included over 230,000 packaged foods and ranked them with the NOVA system to determine the health status of what was in some of the most commonly eaten goods in the country.
Over 70 percent of all of the food items involved in the study, which included everything from chips and pretzels to salad dressing and ice cream, were categorized as “ultra-processed.”
“Food and beverage products continuously evolve, and reports like these highlight opportunities to make critical changes within specific manufacturers or product categories to reduce saturated fat, salt, and sugars,” said Baldridge.
Of all the different food options involved in the study, bread consistently ranked the worst when it came to nutrition make-up, coming in the top third of highest calories, sodium, saturated fat, and sugar -- all factors that can contribute to consumers’ weight gain and other health concerns.
Though work is being done to advise consumers on what foods are best for their overall health, the researchers are adamant that the food industry needs to make sure what’s available on the shelves reflects current health guidelines and gives consumers the proper nutrients.
“We need to better capture real-time information of our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its helpfulness,” said researcher Dr. Mark Huffman.
The findings from this study emphasize how ultra-processed foods can put consumers’ health at stake, and other recent studies have shown just how seriously health can be affected.
Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, premature death, and overeating and weight gain, as consumers who choose highly processed foods are more likely to eat more and eat faster.
“Over time, extra calories add up, and that extra weight can lead to serious health conditions,” said Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers. “Research like this is an important part of understanding the role of nutrition in health and may also help people identify foods that are both nutritious and accessible -- helping people stay healthy for the long term.”