In the News: (CNN) The quick and easy noshes you love are chipping away at your mortality one nibble at a time, according to new research from France: We face a 14 percent higher risk of early death with each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultraprocessed foods we eat. This trend may drive an increase of early deaths due to chronic illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Click here to read about the report and click here to read a list of ultraprocessed products some experts believe should be limited in our diets.
Our Take: Beacon Health clinical dietitians Kelsey Herwick, MS, RDN, and Amanda Gordillo, MA, RD, together offer their perspective on the report.
“It is important to define the terms “ultraprocessed” and “processed” that are frequently used to describe foods. The research study mentioned in the CNN article defines foods as either unprocessed or minimally processed, processed, and ultraprocessed. Examples of minimally/unprocessed foods are bagged spinach, pre-cut vegetables, and roasted nuts – these items are typically packaged for convenience. Processed foods are items such as flour, canned vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned fish – this process preserves foods at their peak of nutrition quality to make them more readily available to the masses.
“The hardest aspect is defining “processed” verses “ultraprocessed” foods. There are many different levels of processing that make items more practical and available to everyone. For example, the research study mentioned in the CNN article places bread in that “ultraprocessed” category while the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) places bread in processed ready-to-eat foods (the AND does not have an “ultraprocessed” category for defining foods).
“There are a lot of benefits associated with food processing, including more widespread access to nutrient dense foods, fortification of foods (such as milk and juice with vitamin D or bread with folic acid), and the preparation time saved from buying foods such as pre-cut vegetables or pre-made salads.
With that being said, there are also some pitfalls to the excessive processing of foods. These can include higher sodium content of canned vegetables, higher fat content of frozen pre-made dinners, and added sugars in breads. Sodium is added to canned vegetables to extend shelf life. Frozen pre-made dinners have a higher fat content to improve texture and flavor of foods frozen and then re-heated. Sugar is added to breads to promote browning and improve aesthetic aspect of bread.
“You can do many things as a consumer to be more conscientious of processed foods. As the CNN article mentions, do not always be easily swayed by what is on the front of the food package. We need to flip it over and read the food label.
“A great example of this is reduced fat peanut butter. When you look at the label you notice it may only have 2 to 3 fewer grams of fat, but it will likely have a higher amount of added sugars and it will be similar in calorie content. When shopping for peanut butter it would be more beneficial to look for a peanut butter with fewer listed ingredients.
“Research continues to link decreased rates of morbidity and mortality with higher intake of whole and minimally processed foods. However, in the fast-paced world we live in it is not always practical to rely entirely on these types of foods, and mindful inclusion of some processed items can still be used in a healthful diet.
“Overall, balance is still the key, and being fed is better than not being fed.”