Processed Foods Are Added to Menu Created by Scientists

Researchers have created a menu in which 91% of calories come from ultra-processed foods while still following dietary recommendations. However, the scientists did not examine the health outcomes, whereas the classification system used in the study may not necessarily indicate the diet's healthfulness.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as chocolate, frozen meals, and sodas, has been increasing in the United States. In 2017 to 2018, such foods accounted for 57% of calories consumed by American adults, compared to 53% in 2001 to 2002.

The new study led by the scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) suggests it may be possible to build a diet based on ultra-processed foods (UPF), which is in line with the recommendations from the 2020 to 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

"The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option," says ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. "According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of a food and its place in a food group are more important than the extent to which a food was processed."

To determine the food processing degree, the researchers used the NOVA scale that defines ultra-processed foods as formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives. Additionally, ingredients of such formulations usually include sugars, oils, fats, or salt.

Then, the researchers created a menu with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for a seven-day, 2,000-calorie food pattern. The menu consisted of foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders.

The eating pattern aligned with 2020 DGA recommendations for servings of groups and subgroups of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy, and scored 86 of 100 points on the Healthy Eating Index-2015. The researchers say the diet scored less-than-perfect because sodium intake was too high while whole grain content was below recommendations.

For day one, the study authors recommend eating the following foods:

Breakfast: a burrito made with 1 flour tortilla 7" in diameter, ¼ c. liquid egg whites (in 1 tsp soft margarine), 1/3 c. canned black beans, 1 oz shredded cheddar cheese, as well as 1 c. orange juice and 1 c. nonfat ultrafiltered milk.

Lunch: turkey sandwich made of 2 slices whole wheat bread, 3 oz deli turkey, 2 slices of tomato, ¼ c. shredded romaine lettuce, 1/8 c. mushrooms, 1 ½ oz shredded mozzarella, 1 tsp yellow mustard, 3/4 c. frozen grilled potatoes, and 12 oz sparkling water.

Dinner: salmon rice bowl made of 2 packets lemon pepper salmon, ½ c. white rice, 1 tbsp chopped scallions, ¼ c. diced cucumber, 1 tbsp sesame seeds, 3 tsp mayonnaise, 1 tsp hot sauce, toasted nori (4g package), ½ c. steamed broccoli, and 1 c. nonfat ultrafiltered milk.

Snack: 1 c. fruit cocktail.

The menu provided 2025 kcal per day on average, with about 22% of kcal from protein, 54% from carbohydrates, and 26% from fat. As the DGA recommends, less than 10% of energy came from saturated fat (7%) and added sugars (5%).

The diet also provided enough calcium, fiber, and potassium intake for people whom the DGA considers 2000 kcal appropriate, namely females 19 to 30 years and males 51 years and older. Whereas the intake of vitamins D and E and choline was insufficient.

How unhealthy is UPF?

The study, however, has several limitations. Researchers acknowledge that classifying what constitutes ultra-processed foods remains challenging. Moreover, the NOVA scale is not useful for determining how beneficial either individual foods or dietary patterns are when current DGA recommendations are used as context to indicate healthfulness.

Several studies have linked ultra-processed foods to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some cancers. For example, a large 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal associated increased consumption of ultra-processed foods with higher cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease rates.

Another recent study of nearly 20,000 Spanish adults found that those consuming more than four servings of ultra-processed foods a day had a 62% higher risk of all-cause mortality.

The new study's authors say that further research is necessary to determine if relationships between ultra-processed foods and increased risk of chronic disease may depend on factors other than processing levels identified by NOVA.

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