The packaged food industry's shameful role in chronic disease

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Researchers analyzed over 200,000 barcoded products, which comprise 80% of Americans' calorie consumption, and found that 71% were ultra-processed.

According to the CDC, six in 10 adults in the United States have a chronic disease; four in 10 have two or more. One of four key lifestyle risks driving these epidemics is poor nutrition. So why are Americans eating so poorly?

Here's a clue. According to a new study from Northwestern University, most of Americans' calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages. When the scientists analyzed the applicable 230,156 bar-coded products included in the Label Insight database (which represents more than 80 percent of all food and beverage products sold in the US over the past three years) they found that 71 percent were were ultra-processed. Among the top 25 manufacturers by sales volume, 86 percent of products were classified as ultra-processed.

Basically, most of the country is living on products that are high in calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt. On food that is being funneled to us by food manufacturers; products that are derived from "hydrogenated fats and modified starch, and are synthesized in laboratories," according to the authors.

Ultra-processed products fall at the bottom of the NOVA Food Classification System, which groups foods according to the extent of industrial processing. Ultra-processed foods include things like packaged snacks, breads, instant noodles, pastries, flavored yogurts, and chocolate milk, to name a few – and have been linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and overall increased risk of death.

Noting that our food and beverage supply plays a central role in the development of chronic disease including obesity and cardiovascular disease, lead author Abigail Baldridge, a biostatistician in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says:

"To say that our food supply is highly processed won't shock anyone, but it's important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they're doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers. And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better."

The study hopes to offer new information for consumers, researchers and policymakers to encourage the food industry to reformulate or replace unhealthy products. The authors also hope that it may inform the government on where they may be able to improve the nutrition in packaged food.

"Food and beverage products continuously evolve, and reports like these highlight opportunities to make critical changes within specific manufacturers or product categories to reduce saturated fat, salt and sugars," Baldridge said. "Our team has previously shown that breads, in particular, have 12% higher sodium content in the U.S. in comparison to the U.K., where national sodium-reduction strategies have contributed to lowering sodium levels in packaged foods," Baldridge said.

I am not so sure I can envision the current administration hopping on the "make food healthy again" bandwagon, but as consumers we can try to resist the siren song of junk food marketing, strive to eat less ultra-processed food, and work to encourage food manufacturers to start becoming more accountable.

The study, The Healthfulness of the US Packaged Food and Beverage Supply: A Cross-Sectional Study, was published in the journal Nutrients.

The packaged food industry's shameful role in chronic disease
Researchers analyzed over 200,000 barcoded products, which comprise 80% of Americans' calorie consumption, and found that 71% were ultra-processed.

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