It’s no secret that ultra-processed foods aren’t beneficial to your health. Studies link these foods made with cheap ingredients and fillers, with a higher risk of health problems, like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. In fact, a study finds that the risk of type 2 diabetes rises by 15% with each 10-point increase in ultra-processed foods a person eats.
Once people taste ultra-processed foods, they often come back for more, as they’re engineered in a way that makes them flavorful and rewarding. Plus, it’s easier to open a package or pop dinner in the microwave than it is to cook a meal from scratch. Yet some foods are so processed and distinct from food in its whole state that people refer to them as food-like substances.
One problem with overly processed foods is their link with obesity. Studies show that when we eat ultra-processed foods, we consume more food overall. In fact, a randomized-controlled study found that subjects who ate an ultra-processed diet ate over 500 more calories daily. They also gained 2 pounds more over the course of a 2-week study than those who ate a whole food diet.
The whole food eaters, in contrast, lost 2 pounds of body weight, despite the diets containing a similar percentage of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The difference was in the degree of processing of each diet. One was highly processed and the other consisted of food in its whole, unaltered state. The participants were free to eat as much as they wanted, but those who ate the ultra-processed diet ate more.
You might wonder what ultra-processed food really is. It’s food that is altered to the point that it contains constituents of food but little of the whole food itself. To create more texture and increase its shelf life manufacturers add fillers and preservatives. For some products, manufacturers replace the vitamins and minerals they removed during processing with synthetic ones.
How Manufacturers Legitimize Their Offerings
When you read the label on an ultra-processed product, you might think an item is healthier than it is. Manufacturers use photos and colors that make a product appear more natural and they also use wholesome sounding words. If they add food with superfood status, such as acai berries, they claim that the product contains superfoods, despite the likelihood that the product contains only a small quantity of that item. Be wary of the term superfood. In reality, it doesn’t have a legal definition, rather it’s a marketing term.
But they have other tricks up their sleeve. What’s the first thing you see when you look at a food product? The packaging, of course. One trick is to make the print on the front of the package big and bold and use words like “natural” or “no additives” to give you a positive impression of the product. They hope you’ll decide to buy based on the front of the package and won’t read the ingredients. They’d rather you not see how much sugar or high fructose corn syrup and sodium are in the product. This distraction technique is a ploy that fools shoppers who are in a hurry and don’t have time to read the nutritional information. The nutritional information is small in size and hard to see if you forget your glasses!
Ingredients by Another Name
Another strategy manufacturers use to whitewash unhealthy foods is to label an ingredient in a way that’s less recognizable. For example, there are over 50 terms for added sugar, and many are hard to recognize unless you have a nutritional degree. For example, corn syrup solids, cane juice crystals, crystalline fructose, maltodextrin, glucose syrup solids, malt syrup, and invert sugar are all just sugar in disguise.
Another way they cover up the amount of sugar in a product is to add several types of sugar equivalents, like corn syrup solids, malt syrup, and cane juice so that the product contains lesser amounts of each. Since the ingredients are listed on the label from highest to lowest in quantity, the added sugary ingredients will be lower on the ingredient list. This benefits the manufacturer since most people, when they check the ingredients, only look at the first few.
Another ingredient that some people are sensitive to is monosodium glutamate or MSG, but avoiding it isn’t as simple as scanning for MSG on the label. Yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and autolyzed vegetable protein are equivalents of MSG.
Other Marketing Buzzwords
Another way food manufacturers’ grab your attention is by including health buzzwords. We mentioned how they use the term superfood, but they capitalize on other trends too. When gluten-free diets were popular, some manufacturers proudly claimed that they were gluten-free. During the low-fat diet craze, packaging with the words fat-free or low fat prompted people to buy. But the promise of being gluten-free or low in fat doesn’t mean a product is healthy. Manufacturers replace the fat and gluten with other components like fillers. Instead of fat, you get added sugar or carbohydrates that have a negative impact on your blood sugar. Manufacturers hope you’ll see these buzzwords and assume a product is healthy and not read the label.
The Bottom Line
Look past the beautiful, green images on the front of the package and enticing words like superfood and scrutinize the nutritional information and the ingredient list. If a product is high in sodium or sugar, low in fiber, and contains a long list of ingredients that are hard to pronounce, you don’t want it on your table. However, we shouldn’t malign all processed foods. For example, frozen fruits and vegetables are minimally processed and may retain more nutrients than their fresh counterpart since freezing locks in the nutrients at the time of harvest. So, be a discerning shopper, read labels, and make more room in your shopping cart for whole, unprocessed foods.
The take-home message? Be an informed shopper and choose more foods that don’t require a label. Research suggests that eating foods in their whole unprocessed state maximizes nutrition and has less impact on your blood sugar and metabolic health, but don’t be afraid of every food in a package. Frozen fruits and vegetables are convenient and make it easier to get your 5+ servings of produce each day.
- Clinical and Translational Report. Volume 30, Issue 1, P67-77.E3, July 2, 2019.
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- The Lancet Diabetes & endocrinology. 2016;4(2):174-186. doi:10.1016/S2213-8587(15)00419-2.
- com. “The 56 Most Common Names for Sugar (Some Are Tricky)”
- org. “Processed vs. ultra-processed food, and why it matters to your health”