Eating Fewer Ultra-Processed Foods Doesn't Mean You're Eating Healthy

Eating foods that are minimally processed doesn’t necessarily make for a healthier diet, a new study suggests.

Conversations surrounding the dangers of ultra-processed foods and their prevalence in the average American's diet are seemingly everywhere right now.

Ample research has been conducted recently demonstrating the association between eating a lot of ultra-processed foods and a number of health conditions, including some cancers, mental health issues, cognitive decline, cardiovascular issues, and early death.

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But a new study suggests that the level of processing used to make food may be less important than what the food actually is. It suggests that it’s entirely possible to eat a diet of minimally processed foods that is quite unhealthy while also being less shelf stable and more expensive than the alternative.

The preliminary findings were presented at NUTRITION 2024, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.

To conduct the study, researchers created two menus: one with 20% of its calories coming from ultra-processed foods, and one with 67% of its calories coming from ultra-processed foods, with the level of processing of each food determined by the NOVA system of classification.

Despite differences in processing levels, each menu was found to have a Healthy Eating Index score of about 43-44 out of 100 — a relatively low score that does not adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

While both menus were unhealthy, the less processed menu was estimated to cost $34.87 per day per person, while the more processed menu would cost $13.53 per day per person. The less-processed menu items would expire in a median time of 35 days, compared to 120 days for the more-processed menu items.

The findings suggest that focusing on the level of processing is not necessarily the best way to determine whether a food or a diet is healthy, as not all minimally processed foods contain nutritional value and vice versa. For example, unsweetened applesauce, ultrafiltered milk, liquid egg whites, some brands of raisins, and canned tomatoes all contain nutritional value but are considered ultra-processed.

The study builds on previous research from the same team, which found that it is possible to create a high-quality, nutritious menu that follows dietary guidelines and yet derives most of its calories from ultra-processed foods.

“The results of this study indicate that building a nutritious diet involves more than a consideration of food processing as defined by NOVA,” said Julie Hess, Ph.D., a research nutritionist at the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, who led the study, in a news release. “The concepts of ‘ultra-processed’ foods and ‘less-processed’ foods need to be better characterized by the nutrition research community.”

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