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Study: Americans eat too damn much processed food

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A new study thinks it knows the culprit fueling America’s bad eating habits: ultra-processed foods.

That category includes foods like frozen pizzas, breakfast cereals, and fizzy sodas. Researchers at Tufts University and the University of Sao Paulo analyzed the eating habits of more than 9,000 Americans and concluded that about 58 percent of the average American’s calories come from ultra-processed foods every day.

The study, which was published in the medical journal BMJ Open, drew findings from in-depth interviews with the study's participants, who were asked to recall every item they’d eaten over a 24-hour period. On average, they consumed about 2,070 calories per day.

In addition to the ultra-processed foods, participants took in about 28 percent of their calories from unprocessed foods, such as eggs, milk, vegetables, or fresh fish. An additional 10 percent came from regular processed foods – items like cheese or cured meat.

But ultra-processed foods carry a particular risk: They contain significant amounts of added sugars, the sweeteners that food production companies artificially add to their products. Overall, ultra-processed foods contribute 90 percent of the added sugars Americans consume each day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans take in no more than 10 percent of their calories per day from added sugar, but it’s easy to exceed that goal when such a large portion of our diets rely on sugar-rich processed foods. As such, 71 percent of Americans exceed that 10 percent goal; one CDC analysis found that children, on average, derive as much as 16 percent of their daily calorie intake from added sugars.

Of course, the problem with this heightened sugar intake is that it makes Americans more likely to be overweight or obese. That, in turn, increases the chances of developing serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

If Americans want to cut back on those risks, the researchers conclude, they’ll have to take in a lot less added sugar – which means they’ll need to cut way back on ultra-processed foods.

Go deeper:

  • Here’s a handy info page on added sugars from the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • The FDA wants to include "added sugars" as a category on a new, revamped nutrition label.
  • And for a shock to your system, check out the 30-plus ingredients that go into Doritos Cool Ranch tortilla chips.