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Ultra-Processed Foods: Beyond the Headlines

Ultra-Processed Foods: Beyond the Headlines

In today’s newsletter, we turn back to Nancy Clark, an internationally known sports nutritionist and best-selling author who helps active people win with good nutrition. Check out more of Nancy’s work. Thanks Nancy!

Introduction

In today's food culture, we've demonized certain types of foods, such as those with abundant carbs, fat, salt, and sugar. The latest demon is ultra-processed foods. You've undoubtedly seen the headlines:

  • Ultra-processed foods linked to heart disease, diabetes, mental disorders and early death, study finds.

  • Eating processed foods tied to shorter life. 

  • You should stop eating ultra-processed foods.

Such fear-mongering headlines influence many runners to steer clear of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). While that is often the nutritionally wisest choice, the words ultra-processed foods get tossed around way too loosely.

Clickbait headlines can fail to offer a balanced overview. Sports drinks, gels, protein bars, as well frozen meals, store-bought bread, and vanilla yogurt (all UPFs) can be helpful additions to a busy (and budget-minded) runner's food plan. Will these foods really ruin your health?

This article looks beyond the headlines and offers information to help you better understand what UPFs are and what they are not. Nutrition communicator Liz Ward RD shared much of this UPF information at the Mass. Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Annual Meeting (March 2024).

Definition: What is an ultra-processed food?

Foods are classified by the NOVA (not an acronym) system according to how they have been processed. NOVA has four categories—none of which consider a food's nutritional value:

Group 1. Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods—fresh & frozen fruits & veggies, plain meat, oats, coffee, pasta.

Group 2. Processed Culinary Ingredients (also called Oils, Fats, Salt, and Sugar)— includes foods from Group 1, but in a different form: olive oil (vs. olives), white sugar (vs. sugar cane), maple syrup (vs. sap), butter (vs. cream). Again, no mention of nutritional value.

Group 3. Processed Foods—home-cooked and commercially made food from Groups 1 and 2 with ingredients found in your kitchen (sugar, salt, oil), plus preservatives to extend the shelf-life in foods. Examples include many foods thought to be good for us: smoked salmon, canned beans, canned tuna, and fresh cheeses.

Group 4. Ultra-Processed Foods— "industrial formulations" with fat, oil, sugar, starch, flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives. This group includes sports and energy drinks, cookies, baked chips, candy, as well as chocolate milk (excellent for recovery after a hard workout); tofu and salted nuts (good sources of protein for vegetarians); and packaged whole-grain bread. Many UPFs are nutrient-rich and positive choices for runners. Hence, you want to think about nutrient density more than NOVA classifications.

What does the science say about ultra-processed foods?

While click-bait headlines proclaim UPFs are linked to heart disease, diabetes, brain health, and early death, the science is less definitive. Most UPF research looks at what people eat—and may overlook other factors that impact health, such as stress, economic status, exercise, and lifestyle. Research indicates ultra-processed foods such as breakfast cereal and (sweetened) yogurt have health benefits.

To date, only one well-controlled study has compared the impact of two-weeks of eating an UPF diet (80%of calories) to a diet with minimally processed foods but nutritionally similar foods (in terms of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber). The results suggest the subjects ate more calories with the UPFs and gained two pounds during the two-week UPF diet and lost two pounds during the two-week minimally processed food trial.

Does this mean the media can rightfully declare UPFs are fattening? No. Research done under such highly controlled conditions differs from "real life" eating patterns. Plus, two-weeks is a short trial. (This type of research is very difficult and expensive to complete.).

Is processing the problem— or is something else the culprit?

Emulsifiers (such as cellulose gum and polysorbate 80) have been linked to negative changes in rats in the gut microbiome. Stay tuned for definitive human studies.

PFAs are endocrine disrupting chemicals that resist grease, oil, and water. PFAs are in food packaging, such as the shiny wrappers on energy bars, grease-resistant microwave popcorn bags, and paper take-out food containers. As of Feb. 2024, PFAs are no longer allowed in food packaging in the US—but has their metabolic damage already been done?

Is hyper-palatability the problem? Foods made with sugar and fat are more pleasing than sugar-free and fat-free foods—and even sugar and fat itself. Chocolate, for example, offers an appealing mix of sugar and fat that makes it very easy to over-eat...

Food for Thought

Before demonizing all UPFs, we really need to look at the whole picture. We know chronic health issues are linked to eating patterns that lack fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts. We also know that eating excess calories of salt, added sugars, and certain kinds of fat commonly found in UPFs can harm health. But despite popular belief, it is possible to choose a food plan with 90% UPFs and still consume a quality diet.

Ultimately, your overall dietary pattern—what, when, why, how much you eat—and not just UPFs will impact your health. We need to figure out why some people eat too many seemingly "addictive" UPFs such as salty snacks and sweets. We'd also appreciate if NOVA added a category for nutrient-dense processed foods, to help resolve the demonization of all UPFs. Sausages and hot dogs should not be in the same category as tofu and peanut butter!

When making your nutrition game plan, there's little doubt that munching on Group 1 nuts and fruits (instead of pre-wrapped bars), and spending more time cooking homemade foods with fresh, locally grown Group 1 foods will be the ultimate winning diet. But convenience is a key reason rowers reach for UPFs. One suggestion is to keep your pantry stocked with minimally processed foods, so you can just as conveniently assemble a quick meal:

As always, you want to eat more of best and less of the rest, keeping balance and moderation in mind.

About the author

Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for more information.

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