Sugar is one of those things that slips into your diet without you even realizing how much or how often (sneaky little devil). Therein lies the problem. By now, you know sources of sugar aren’t limited to cupcakes and candy, but you’re probably not familiar with the “food group” that’s spiking your diet with sugar. This food category is responsible for 90%—yes, 90 as in 9-0—of the added sugars in your diet. Keep reading to find out what it is.
You’re probably thinking Processed foods? Not exactly a shocker—could have guessed that one. But not so fast, because your definition of processed foods may not be completely accurate. First of all, “processed” isn’t necessarily a bad word, despite the villainous role it’s taken up. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the only time a food can truly be called “fresh” (i.e. not processed) is when it’s plucked out of nature and popped into your mouth (yes, you can wash it first). All those frozen veggies in your freezer that were frozen to preserve their peak level of freshness? Processed.
Second, there are different levels of processed foods. Frozen peas don’t fall into the same bucket as Nacho Cheese Doritos. The real enemy is “ultra-processed foods” (or “hyper-processed foods”), which the researchers, from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, define as “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.” You can probably point out some obvious food items that fall into this category (frozen dinners, soft drinks etc.), but there are also a few that might surprise you—like your heart-healthy, fiber-rich breakfast cereal.
According to a recent study published in BMJ Open that used data from a nationally representative sample of over 9300 people, on average, 57.9% of people’s caloric intake comes from ultra-processed foods. Processed foods (a step above ultra-processed), like cheese and canned foods, accounted for 9.4%. Minimally processed and unprocessed foods—like produce, eggs, and meat—made up 29.6%. The remaining 2.9% can be attributed to “processed culinary ingredients,” like vegetable oil, table salt, and sugar.
Even with the knowledge that processed foods aren’t inherently bad, the numbers alone are striking. But the real cause for concern is that ultra-processed foods account for nearly all of the added sugar in our diets—a whopping 90%, to be exact. The most recent guidelines from the World Health Organization recommend people get less than 10% of their daily caloric intake from added sugar. They added that 5% is actually preferred. (The average in this study was 14%.) The researchers also found that when the consumption of ultra-processed foods was high, the risk of surpassing 10% was much higher.
Obviously if we could adhere to Whole30 ($18) guidelines all the time, we could all worry less about the health status of Americans. But until that fantasy becomes a reality, just be aware of what you’re unwrapping and putting in your body. Ultra-processed sugar bombs are replacing more nutrient-rich foods. Which means not only are we consuming too much sugar, but we’re consuming too many calories and not getting enough nutrients. The researchers concluded that decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods would be an effective way to lower the intake of added sugars. So try to eat more whole raw almonds ($30) and berries, and fewer “fruit and nut” bars.
Do you think these figures are representative of your diet? Tell us below!