EVANSTON, Ill. — It’s no secret that many Americans struggle to maintain a healthy weight, but attempting to pin down just one absolute cause for rising U.S. obesity rates has proven difficult. For example, some people say they can’t find the time to regularly exercise, while others may just have an affinity for fast food. Now, a new study out of Northwestern University has identified another contributing factor: the overwhelming majority of packaged foods available in the U.S. in 2018 were ultra-processed and unhealthy.
More so than any other Western country, Americans are being bombarded with food products that are high in sugar, saturated fat, salt, and calories. More specifically, after analyzing over 200,000 U.S. packaged food products including bread, snacks, salad dressings, sugary sweets, and sugary drinks researchers found that a whopping 71% were classified as ultra-processed. Furthermore, 86% of the packaged foods sold by the 25 top manufacturers were found to be ultra-processed.
For reference, the term “ultra-processed” was defined as foods that “are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins).” These foods are usually created in laboratories and derived from hydrogenated fats and modified starch.
The research team at Northwestern University say they engaged in this study to shine a light on the nutritional qualities of food being marketed and sold to the American public by manufacturers, as well as to provide consumers and policymakers with accurate information on U.S. packaged food goods.
“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,” comments lead author Abigail Baldridge in a release. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”
According to the study, bread products seemed to be especially unhealthy. “Bread and bakery products” was the only studied food category that ranked high in all four nutrient categories; calories, saturated fat, sodium, and total sugars.
Interestingly, while U.S. packaged foods are similar in overall health qualities to other Western countries such as Australia, American food goods were found to be significantly more processed and contain larger amounts of sugar and sodium, on average. For example, U.S. bread products contain 12% higher sodium levels than U.K. bread, however it is worth noting that the U.K. has made a concentrated effort to lower sodium levels in their packaged foods.
There isn’t enough readily available information on what is inside the food Americans are eating, researchers assert. Baldridge and her team believe the first step to making the food supply healthier is properly assessing it and making sure that information is available to consumers and policymakers.
“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 comments.
Researchers are confident that their study is an accurate representation of the U.S. packaged food market as a whole; the data analyzed represented more than 80% of all food and beverage products sold in the U.S. over the past three years. That being said, it is difficult to paint an accurate picture of the industry because it is constantly changing, with about 20% of packaged foods in the United States being replaced or modified each year.
“We need to better capture real-time information of our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its healthfulness,” says study co-author Dr. Mark Huffman.