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Science and Research

Your Food Is Ultra Processed

(And Yes, It Can Affect Your Heart)

This article was originally published by Northwestern University. It has been modified for the Northwestern Medicine content hub, HealthBeat.

A poor diet can increase your risk for obesity, high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes. These health issues, in turn, increase your risk for heart disease ― the leading cause of death of both men and women.

Unfortunately, according to a Northwestern Medicine study, people in the U.S. are overexposed to the ingredients of a poor diet: foods that are high in calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

The Search for Better, Healthier Food

Since about 80% of total calorie consumption in the U.S. comes from packaged foods and beverages, the food and beverage supply plays a major role in the development of chronic disease, including obesity and cardiovascular disease.

“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,” says the study’s lead author, Abigail Baldridge, a biostatistician in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”

The study aimed to provide new information for consumers, researchers and policymakers to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate or replace unhealthy products and to inform the U.S. government on where action may be needed to improve the healthfulness of the U.S. packaged food and beverage supply.

What Is Considered Ultra-processed?

As classified by the NOVA Food Classification System developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, “Ultra-processed food and beverages are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins).” Created in laboratories, they are derived from hydrogenated fats, also known as trans fats, and modified starch. Trans fats can increase your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol (HDL), which increases your risk for developing heart disease.

The scientists analyzed 230,156 products and found 71% of products were ultra-processed. This includes common household staples, such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets and sugary drinks. Compared to other western countries like Australia, the U.S. food supply is similarly healthy but more processed, with higher median sugar and sodium content, the study found.

Baldridge suggests that manufacturers could replace or reformulate food and beverage products. “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,” she notes.

“We need to better capture real-time information on our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its healthfulness,” adds study co-author and Northwestern Medicine Cardiologist Mark D. Huffman, MD, MPH.

While dietary guidelines are routinely updated, regular surveillance or reporting on what is available on grocery shelves is available to consumers. In response, the study team, including scientists at The George Institute for Global Health in Australia, launched a free mobile phone app that allows consumers to scan packaged foods to determine their healthfulness.

Your nutrition can help you maximize your health. It’s never too early to start thinking about eating well. Opt for fresh heart-healthy options, like whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit. You can also learn the lingo of a nutritional label.

Mark D. Huffman, MD, MPH
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