The truth about ultra-processed foods can be ultra-complicated

The 360 ​​shows you different perspectives on the most important stories and debates of the day.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News;  photo: Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images.

What is going on

For decades, the question of whether or not a food is healthy has largely centered on what it contains: does it contain a lot of fiber and vitamins? Is there an excess of fat, salt or sugar?

But more recently, many experts have begun to believe that how our food is made may be just as important as what it’s made of. With this updated way of looking at food health, a new villain has emerged: .

While there is no universal definition, ultraprocessed foods are foods that have been heavily modified and often contain additives such as preservatives, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. The term was first popularized by a in 2009 who argued that nutritional systems that look only at the composition of a food, such as the food pyramid, ignore critical differences in how various foods end up on our plates.

Because much of what we eat has been modified in some way, a wide range of foods can be modified. Most junk foods (like sweets and chips) comfortably fall into the category, but so do many items that might not be considered obviously unhealthy for the average consumer, including flavored yogurts, plant-based milks, and most breads found in the supermarket. One study estimated that most of it comes from ultra-processed foods.

Because there is debate

A growing body of research shows that diets high in ultraprocessed foods are linked to a wide range of health problems, including various types of , and even . The challenge, however, is determining whether these problems can be attributed directly to the way food is produced or whether they could be the result of other factors.

A number of states that there is enough evidence to suggest that ultraprocessed foods are more unhealthy, even when compared to foods of the exact same nutritional makeup. They argue that these products were specifically designed to trigger responses in our brains that promote overeating and often contain a number of artificial ingredients with effects on the body that we don’t fully understand yet.

But critics of this approach say these studies simply confirm what we’ve known for decades: that diets high in fat, sugar and salt, of which they tend to have a lot of ultra-processed foods, aren’t healthy. There are also fears that too much discussion of the dangers of ultra-processed foods could lead people to avoid generally healthy foods that fall into that category, such as meat alternatives, various breads, and even infant formula.

Another source of debate is what should be done with ultra-processed foods if they are deemed unsafe. Many experts say that one of the main reasons they’re so ubiquitous is because they’re cheaper and more convenient than whole foods. They argue that widespread changes to our food system will be needed to ensure that everyone, not just people with lots of time and money, can eliminate these unhealthy products from their diets.

What’s next

At present, the official dietary guidelines of the US government do not take a position on ultra-processed foods. But experts question whether the issue should be included in the next set of updated recommendations, due for publication in 2025.


Ultraprocessed foods are literally killing people

Four of the top six killers are linked to poor diet, which in the United States is likely largely due to convenient, safe, and inexpensive foods we eat too much of. Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at Stanford University, a

What matters is what’s in a food, not how it’s made

If the problem with ultra-processed foods turns out to be their sugar and salt content, for example, then the problem would be with the sugar and salt, not whether we bought a burger from a fast food restaurant or made our own burger at home. Beth Skwarecki,

Many ultra-processed foods aren’t actually food at all

I was pretty confident that junk food was bad. That didn’t stop me from eating it, however. Learning about UPF is a different experience where you start to understand that some of these things are barely food. Elena Lewis,

Many healthy items get grouped with junk food in such broad categories

Even after more than a decade, there is no single agreed upon definition. This ambiguity has consequences: Consumers have become wary of all processed foods and are starting to avoid frozen and canned foods, even if they present a cheap and healthy alternative to fresh produce. Gunter Kuhnle,

All we know for sure is that obviously unhealthy foods should be avoided

It’s a science-backed move to completely avoid sugary drinks and obvious junk food. It’s probably not great even if most of your diet is ultra-processed, even if you’re selecting relatively healthy versions of these foods. Beyond that, the data is confusing. Tim Requart,

Governments must take action to stop ultra-processed foods

We now need to consider using a variety of strategies to reduce consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations. Simply telling people to be more responsible is unlikely to work, when Big Food spends billions each year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility. Phillip Baker, Mark Lawrence and Priscila Machado, the

Rabbering about ultra-processed foods does nothing to address why people eat so much of it

My interest in whether or not anyone eats ultra-processed food is fairly minimal. I don’t care if people want to eat it, that’s fine. What interests me is that they live in a world where they have the freedom to eat whatever food they want. I think real food should be cheap and available to everyone. Chris van Tulleken, author of Ultra-Processed People, a

We cannot defeat world hunger without ultra-processed food

I’m all for a mostly whole-grain diet. But used properly and in moderation, processed foods could be a big boon to overall nutrition. The stigma against them hampers such efforts, so rather than shun food processing, we should welcome it in the appropriate contexts. Hanna Richie,

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images.

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