Would your grandmother or great-grandmother recognize the fare you’re about to put in your mouth as food? Let’s face it: Some of what we eat is a long way from resembling anything from the farm or garden. In fact, a new study finds Americans get more than half their calories from “ultra-processed” foods.

What does “ultra-processed” mean? The term applies to foods that contain not only salt, sugar, oils and fats but also things you wouldn’t normally cook from scratch with, such as flavorings, emulsifiers and other additives that “mimic the qualities of real foods” and “disguise undesirable qualities of the final product,” according to a BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) blog. (Gross. And we devour this stuff.)

Examples of ultra-processed fare include:

  • soft drinks
  • energy drinks
  • breakfast cereals
  • sweet or savory packaged snacks
  • packaged baked goods
  • chicken and fish nuggets
  • sausages
  • frozen pizza
  • ice pops
  • French fries
  • instant noodles
  • instant or canned soups

Frozen pizza(Photo: ptnphoto/Shutterstock)
Breads were considered ultra-processed when they contained hydrogenated vegetable fat, whey, emulsifiers or other ingredients not used in homemade bread.

Related: Raising a Healthy Eater: How Hard Should You Push?

According to the study authors, one huge problem with eating all this ultra-processed food is the sugar that comes with it. In the study, published in BMJ Open, researchers from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University found ultra-processed foods account for 90 percent of all added sugar intake. (Added sugar is any sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in a food.)

Added sugar has been under fire recently. The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which is revised every five years) urged people to limit added sugar to just 12 teaspoons a day. The guidelines recommend people get less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars, but in this study the average was 14 percent, The Atlantic reports.

This is definitely not good news. The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association have found excess added sugar intake increases the risk of obesity and diabetes, which in turn increase the risk of heart disease. “Foods higher in added sugars are often a source of empty calories with minimum essential nutrients or dietary fiber, which displace more nutrient-dense foods and lead, in turn, to simultaneously overfed and undernourished individuals,” the study authors wrote.

Related: Break Your Addictive Food Habit

“Processed” doesn’t always mean bad

Processed foods aren’t all bad, depending how heavily they’re processed. Chopped vegetables and roasted nuts are examples of foods that are processed but only minimally. Canned tomatoes and tuna or frozen spinach also are minimally processed — and it’s the processing that locks in their nutritional quality and freshness.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has this handy explainer about processed foods that outlines the good and the bad.

Related: The Solution to Smarter Snacking


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Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for Boston.com at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.