Ultra-Processed Foods in the American Diet

More than half of American's calories came from ultra-processed foods.


American eating habits tend to lean toward ultra-processed foods, which could be a major health issue.

A recent study of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that Americans are eating way too much sugar, primarily in the form of ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed food includes items like frozen pizza, breakfast cereal and soda. Some examples of unprocessed foods are milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit.

One of the major problems with ultra-processed foods is their high sugar content. Approximately 21 percent of calories in processed foods come from added sugars, compared to two percent of calories for unprocessed foods.

Added sugars in the diet increase the risks of obesity and health problems like cavities, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Carlos A. Monteiro, MD, a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, led the study of more than 9,000 American children and adults. The researchers analyzed data collected in 2009 and 2010 from the CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

For this study, the researchers classified ultra-processed foods as foods that include artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, stabilizers and other additives. The additional ingredients are designed to make the products taste like natural food or mask “undesirable qualities.”

Dr. Monteiro and colleagues found that 58 percent of the calories Americans ate came from ultra-processed foods. What's more, 90 percent of the added sugars in the American diet came from these foods.

Health experts recommend Americans get no more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. For those who ate the most ultra-processed foods, added sugars made up 19.5 percent of total calories.

This study indicated ultra-processed foods accounted for three of every five calories Americans ate. Four out of five Americans got nearly 60 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods.

Dr. Monteiro said in a press release that there is hope. That's because 60 million Americans got 70 percent of their calories from “real food.”

The study was published in the March issue of the British Medical Journal.

The study was funded by Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico of Brazil.

Dr. Monteiro reported receiving fees from organizations like the Haas Avocado Board, Nutrition Impact and pharmaceutical manufacturer Astra Zeneca.