Advertisement

The truth about ultraprocessed foods may be ultracomplicated

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.
Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.

What’s happening

For decades, the question of whether a food is healthy or not has centered largely on what’s in it: Does it have a lot of fiber and vitamins? Is there an excess of fat, salt or sugar?

But more recently, many experts have begun to believe that how our food is made may be just as important as what it’s made of. With this updated way of looking at dietary health, a new villain has emerged: ultraprocessed foods.

While there’s no universal definition, ultraprocessed foods generally refer to foods that have been heavily altered and frequently contain additives like preservatives, artificial flavors and sweeteners. The term was first popularized by a Brazilian researcher in 2009 who argued that nutrition systems that look only at a food’s makeup, like the food pyramid, ignore critical differences in how various foods end upon our plates.

Because so much of what we eat has been modified in some way, a huge range of foods can be classified as ultraprocessed. Most “junk foods” (such as sweets and chips) fit comfortably into the category, but so do a lot of items that may not be considered obviously unhealthy to the average consumer — including flavored yogurts, plant-based milks and most bread found at the supermarket. One study estimated that nearly 60% of Americans’ energy intake comes from ultraprocessed foods.

Why there’s debate

A growing body of research shows that diets high in ultraprocessed foods are linked to a wide range of health problems, including various types of cancer, obesity, heart disease and even cognitive decline. The challenge, though, is determining whether those issues can be attributed directly to how foods are produced or if they might be the result of other factors.

A number of prominent nutrition experts say there’s enough evidence to suggest that ultraprocessed foods are more unhealthy, even when compared with foods with the exact same nutritional makeup. They argue that these products have been specifically engineered to trigger responses in our brains that promote overeating and frequently contain a swath of artificial ingredients with effects on the body that we don’t yet fully understand.

But critics of this approach argue that these studies merely confirm what we’ve known for decades: That diets containing a lot of fat, sugar and salt — which ultraprocessed foods tend to have a lot of — are unhealthy. There are also concerns that too much discussion of the dangers of ultraprocessed foods could cause people to avoid generally healthy foods that happen to fit into that category, such as meat alternatives, various types of bread and even baby formula.

Another source of debate is what should be done about ultraprocessed foods if they are deemed dangerous. Many experts say a major reason they’re so ubiquitous is because they’re cheaper and more convenient than whole foods. They argue that it will take widespread changes to our food system to ensure that everyone, not just people with a lot of time and money, can cut these unhealthy products out of their diets.

What’s next

At the moment, the U.S. government’s official dietary guidelines don’t take a stance on ultraprocessed foods. But experts are currently considering whether the issue should be included in the next set of updated recommendations, which are set to be released in 2025.

Perspectives

Ultraprocessed foods are literally killing people

“Four of the top six killers are related to an inadequate diet, which in the U.S. is probably largely due to convenient, safe, inexpensive food that we eat too much of.” — Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at Stanford University, to NPR

What matters is what’s in a food, not how it’s made

“If the problem with ultra-processed foods turns out to be their sugar and salt content, for example, then the issue would be with sugar and salt, not with whether we bought a burger from a fast food restaurant … or made our own burger at home.” — Beth Skwarecki, Lifehacker

Many ultraprocessed foods aren’t actually food at all

“I felt pretty confident that junk food was bad. That didn’t stop me from eating it, however. Learning about UPF is a different experience — you begin to realize that some of this stuff is barely food at all.” — Helen Lewis, Atlantic

A lot of healthy items get lumped in with junk food under such broad categories

“Even after more than a decade, there is no single agreed upon definition. … This ambiguity has consequences: consumers have become wary of all processed food and start to shun frozen and tinned foods, even though they are an affordable and healthy alternative to fresh produce.” — Gunter Kuhnle, Spectator

All we really know for sure is that obviously unhealthy foods should be avoided

“It’s a science-backed move to completely avoid sweetened beverages and obvious junk food. It’s also probably not great if most of your diet is ultraprocessed, even if you’re selecting relatively healthy versions of these foods. Beyond that, the data is muddy.” — Tim Requarth, Slate

Governments need to step in to stop ultraprocessed foods

“We must now consider using a variety of strategies to decrease consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations. … Simply telling individuals to ‘be more responsible’ is unlikely to work, when Big Food spends billions every year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility.” — Phillip Baker, Mark Lawrence and Priscila Machado, the Conversation

Ranting about ultraprocessed foods doesn’t do anything to address why people eat so much of them

“My interest in whether anyone eats ultra-processed food or not is fairly minimal. I don't care if people want to eat it, that's fine. What I care about is that they live in a world where they have the freedom to eat the food they want. I think real food should be cheap and available for everyone.” — Chris van Tulleken, author of “Ultra-Processed People,” to GQ

We can’t possibly overcome world hunger without ultraprocessed foods

“I’m all for a predominantly whole-food diet. But used in the right way and in moderation, processed foods could be a big boon for global nutrition. Stigma against them hinders such efforts, so rather than shunning food processing, we should embrace it in the appropriate contexts.” — Hannah Ritchie, Wired

Photo illustration by Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.