Research collected from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute revealed that 73 percent of the United States’ food supply is ultra-processed. Some ultra-processed foods include ice cream, candy, soda, and chips.
The study defined ultra-processed as foods that are hyper-palatable “industrial formulations” that stray from their organic origins and are derived from substances like oils, fats, sugar, starch and/or include flavor enhancers, colors and additives.
“It surprised me how a considerable amount of highly processed food is mistakenly considered healthy because the public narrative still focuses on one nutrient at a time, instead of evaluating food as a whole,” Giulia Menichetti, senior research scientist at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University, and senior author of the papers, said.
Based on the study’s findings, the researchers created a database of 50,000 ultra-processed foods found at Walmart, Target and Whole Foods Market to helps consumers identify these products and find healthier alternatives.
The study confirmed that ultra-processed food is 52 percent cheaper on average than less processed alternatives.
While more than 60 percent of caloric intake in the U.S. comes from ultra-processed food, according to a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, the study created TrueFood, a public database that lists the degree of processing of thousands of foods. The researchers’ hope is that TrueFood will “improve dietary guidelines, change consumer behavior without compromising their diet, identify potential food desserts, increase food literacy, and evaluate food assistance programs,” according to a press release.
“According to my preliminary studies, while these concepts still lack precise quantification, they appear to be the leading factor in explaining how current ultra-processed food negatively affects our health,” Menichetti said. “We need to come up with a mathematical definition of ‘whole food’ versus ‘disrupted food’.”
While labels of ultra-processed food include carbohydrates, fat, protein, and fiber, along with a list of ingredients, the nutrition labels do not reveal the entirety of a food’s chemical composition. Menichetti said said her team’s research in meant to “map out the entire web of chemical compounds found in food” to better understand food and how certain foods can negatively impact health.
“Processing can profoundly affect the healthfulness of foods,” Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “but I think we need to look more deeply at the types of processing and the foods that are being processed to determine food and nutrition policy.”