Despite the current fixation on "natural" foods, people are still mostly turning to the freezer aisles for their dinners. According to a new study published in the BMJ Open journal, Americans get more than half of their calories from so-called "ultra-processed" foods, a broad category that includes instant soups, breakfast cereals, sodas, and the frozen meals you probably grew up eating.
In contrast to regular old processed foods, which includes everything that is not fresh (so bread, frozen vegetables, delicious cheeses, and so on), ultra-processed items are defined by the researchers as being made with food substances that are atypical in culinary preparations including "flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives" that are used to compensate for undesirable qualities or to "imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods."
Using data collected from more than 9,000 subjects, the researchers found that these foods account for almost 57.9 percent of people's caloric intake, while processed foods like preserves account for 9.6 percent, and minimally processed or unprocessed foods account for an 29.6 percent. More troubling is that, according to the research, these ultra-processed foods account for 90 percent of Americans' added sugar intake. U.S. dietary guidelines recommend getting just 10 percent of calories from added sugar intake, and consuming tons of sugary ultra-processed foods, the researchers say, not only puts people at a much higher risk of exceeding that limit but results in them being "simultaneously overfed and undernourished" — in other words, what some describe as the paradox of the modern food system.