Ultra-processed food consumption has increased over the last two decades, study finds

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Experts worry about how this trend will impact consumers’ long-term health

A new study conducted by researchers from New York University explored trends in consumers’ eating habits over the last 20 years. 

Their findings showed that consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased significantly in the U.S. Because of the health risks associated with this kind of diet, the team worries about how this will affect consumers’ wellness in the future. 

“The overall composition of the average U.S. diet has shifted towards a more processed diet,” said researcher Filippa Juul. “This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases. The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic.” 

Trends in eating habits

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 41,000 people enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 through 2018. The participants reported on all of the foods they consumed in a 24-hour period, and the researchers broke down their diets into four food groups based on the level of processing. 

The researchers learned that the percentage of calories that came from ultra-processed foods reached nearly 60% in the final year of the study, compared to 53.5% in the first year of the study. Additionally, calories related to whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, dropped from nearly 33% at the beginning of the study to under 28% by the end of the study. 

“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. “Nevertheless, nutritional science tends to focus on the nutrient content of foods and has historically ignored the health implications of industrial food processing.” 

In terms of demographics, the researchers found that college graduates and Hispanic adults ate the most whole foods. Comparatively, older adults went from eating the most whole foods and least amount of processed foods to having the biggest increase of any age group in ultra-processed food consumption in the final year of the study. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The researchers also found that there has been a significant increase in ultra-processed food consumption since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, these eating habits are a cause for concern because they may increase the risk for long-term health concerns. 

“In the early days of the pandemic, people changed their purchasing behaviors to shop less frequently, and sales of ultra-processed foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups, and snack foods increased substantially,” said Juul. “People may have also eaten more packaged ‘comfort foods’ as a way of coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic. We look forward to examining dietary changes during this period as data become available.” 

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