Ultra-processed’ foods dominate U.S. diet and contribute to high sugar intake

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A recent study reveals that ‘ultra-processed’ foods contribute to more than half of all calories consumed in the U.S diet and account for nearly 90% of all added sugar intake.

Ultra-processed foods include ingredients not typically used in cooking, such as flavorings, emulsifiers, and additives that simulate ‘real food’ qualities.

The Nature of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods encompass a broad variety, including mass-produced soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, confectionery and desserts, packaged baked goods, reconstituted meat products like chicken or fish nuggets, and instant noodles and soups.

The Study and Its Findings

The research team utilized dietary data from over 9,000 individuals involved in the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

They discovered that ultra-processed foods comprised just under 60% of total calorie intake and accounted for approximately 90% of energy intake from added sugars.

Remarkably, added sugars represented 1 in every 5 calories in the average ultra-processed food product, far surpassing the calorie content of added sugars in processed foods, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, and processed culinary ingredients, including table sugar.

A significant association was found between the dietary content of ultra-processed foods and the overall dietary intake of added sugars.

The proportion of people exceeding the recommended upper limit of 10% of energy from added sugars was dramatically higher among those with a high ultra-processed food consumption, rising to over 80% among those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods.

Interestingly, only those Americans with ultra-processed food consumption in the lowest 20% had an average daily added sugar intake that fell below the maximum recommended limit.

Implications and Recommendations

Excess added sugar intake has been linked by several leading health bodies, including the World Health Organization, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, the American Heart Association, and the U.S Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, to increased risks of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay.

Given the evidence, the researchers suggest that reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be a viable strategy for curbing excessive added sugar intake in the U.S.


In conclusion, the study highlights the dominance of ultra-processed foods in the American diet and their substantial contribution to the country’s high sugar intake.

Encouraging dietary changes towards less processed foods could have considerable public health benefits.

For more nutrition-related insights, read studies on how vitamin D can help reduce inflammation, and how vitamin K may reduce your heart disease risk by a third.

You might also be interested in recent studies showing that diet soda drinkers have a lower risk of colon cancer death, and a specific diet may improve heart health, even with red meat consumption.

The research was published in the journal BMJ Open.

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