Oh, ‘Ultra-Process’ This

April 26, 2022

Ultra-processed foods apparently are the new nutritional bugaboo. But what exactly are they?

What the heck are “ultra-processed foods”?

Apparently they’re the new nutritional bugaboo. The phrase gets more than 1.2 million Google hits, and the federal government is now considering putting it into Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the map to sound nutrition that gets updated every five years.

The problem is that no one seems to know just what the phrase means. Does it refer to foods that literally have been subjected to multiple processes, such as mixing, extrusion, molding, etc.? Does it mean that it has too much bad stuff, like sugar and fat? Or maybe it means the use of functional formulation components like coloring and emulsifiers?

Or maybe it’s an unnecessary distraction?

Every once in a while, I come across an over-the-top statement about food, like “everything in a package is poison,” that makes me roll my eyes. I’m not sure that “ultra-processed food” qualifies, but it’s close. How many packaged foods can you think of that are subjected to just one “process”?

I honestly don’t see how processing techniques can make a difference that is independent of the food’s components. It’s not processing, per se, that makes orange juice less healthy than a whole orange; it’s because the squeezing and filtration remove the fruit’s fiber while keeping its sugar.

Assembling the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, referenced above, is coordinated by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ultra-processed food is just one of the concepts they’re wrestling with. Another is whether to call red meat by its name.

The guidelines as currently constituted recommend a reduction in saturated fat, but it says nothing about a major source: red meat. Some observers feel that red meat should be called out specifically – but that’s not likely to happen. When it comes to nutrition, the USDA is set up to contradict itself. On one hand, it encourages people to eat less red meat; on the other, it heavily subsidizes the corn that goes to feed those cattle, as well as the milk that some of them produce.

This tension will continue until either the USDA resolves it, or (the better option in my opinion) the function of consumer nutrition is taken away from USDA and given to an agency that can put public health top of mind.

Resolving that contradiction, one way or another, will do more to clear up confusion around good nutrition than any amount of debate over “ultra-processed food.” You might even call it an ultra-solution.