Written by: Kelsey Schaffstall Young MS, RDN, LDN
What is ultra-processed food?
Nearly all food is processed to some degree, however the more processing a food has undergone, the more likely it is to include additives that could have negative health effects.
Minimally processed foods include fresh meat, milk, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. In minimally processed food, the nutritional properties of the original food is not altered, and the food remains recognizable to its original form.5 Some methods of processing used to produce minimally processed foods include cleaning, removal of inedible fractions, portioning, refrigeration, freezing, pasteurization, fermenting, pre-cooking, drying, skimming, bottling, and packaging.5
Ultra-processed foods are often sold as products that are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. These foods are derived from substances extracted from whole foods such as oils, fats, starches, and sugars which have no real resemblance to the original ingredients.5 Additives are often required to improve the texture and shelf stability of ultra-processed food products such as packaged snacks, cookies, sauces, and dressings.
What is the prevalence of food additives?
The use of additives in food processing is regulated by the FDA and, under the 1958 Food Additive Amendment, more than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the United States, either directly or indirectly.6
Several surveys (conducted in Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Brazil) have suggested that ultra-processed food products contribute between 25-50% of total daily calorie intake. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is increasing among US adults as well, from 53.5% of calories in 2001-2002 to 57% of calories in 2017-2018.4
What are the health effects of processed food consumption?
A large prospective study showed a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of ~10% in risks of overall and breast cancer and 10-15% in the risk of heart disease and diabetes.2,3
Research is emerging regarding one category of food additives. Emulsifiers, such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, and polysorbates, are used to improve the texture and shelf life of food products such as nut milks, ice cream, sauces, and dressings, have been shown to negatively impact gut health.1
In a small randomized controlled trial, 16 healthy volunteers ate the same emulsifier-free diet in an inpatient setting, but the intervention group received 15g carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) daily for 10 days.1 Subjects fed CMC displayed greater changes in microbiota composition than controls, reduced microbial richness, and the reduction of beneficial metabolites including short chain fatty acids and essential amino acids. 1 Two subjects also displayed bacterial encroachment into the inner mucus layer of the gut, which is a common feature of IBS. 1
Strategies to limit additives
In this day and age, it would be nearly impossible to avoid food additives completely, but there are a few simple ways that you can minimize food additive intake. First, when comparing products, a shorter ingredient list usually indicates less additives. Choose products with whole food ingredients as often as possible and opt for convenient forms of minimally processed ingredients to promote home cooking (plain frozen fruit and vegetables, precut fruit and vegetables, frozen meats, etc.). Practice meal prep strategies to simplify home cooking, and start making your own sauces, dressings, doughs, and batters from scratch. Finally, enjoy fast food and restaurant meals in moderation. Consider making an appointment with a Registered Dietitian who can assist you in making sustainable dietary changes that fit your lifestyle.
- Chassaing, Benoit, et al. “Randomized controlled-feeding study of dietary emulsifier carboxymethylcellulose reveals detrimental impacts on the gut microbiota and metabolome.” Gastroenterology 162.3 (2022): 743-756.
- Chazelas, Eloi, et al. “Nitrites and nitrates from food additives and natural sources and cancer risk: results from the NutriNet-Santé cohort.” International Journal of Epidemiology (2022).
- Fiolet, Thibault, et al. “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort.” bmj 360 (2018).
- Juul, Filippa, et al. “Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 115.1 (2022): 211-221.
- Monteiro, Carlos A. “Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing.” Public health nutrition 12.5 (2009): 729-731.
- Trasande, Leonardo, et al. “Food additives and child health.” Pediatrics 142.2 (2018).