Michael Pollan’s guideline that people should “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is oft-quoted, less oft-followed. Once again, research has demonstrated that Americans actually tend to eat food, too much, mostly things that are no longer recognizable as plants, if indeed they ever were: More than half of Americans’ calories come from “ultra-processed foods,” according to a new study published in BMJ Open.
“Processed” is not inherently an evil word. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the only time a food can be called fresh is when you’ve just ripped it out of the ground or off a tree and shoved it in your mouth. (Ok, you’re allowed to wash it, coat it, and use pesticides, too.) So bread, even the whole-wheat kind with the weird seeds in it, is processed. Frozen spinach is processed.
But that is not the kind of processing they’re talking about in this study. The researchers, from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, defined “ultra-processed” 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.