NEW YORK — Americans have increased their consumption of ultra-processed foods this century, according to a study appearing Oct. 14 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers from the New York University School of Global Public Health, after analyzing data collected by 24-hour recalls from 40,937 US adults over age 19, found consumption of ultra-processed foods increased to 57% of all calories in 2017-18 from 53.5% in 2001-02.

“The overall composition of the average US diet has shifted towards a more processed diet,” said Filippa Juul, PhD, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Public Health and the study's lead author. “This is concerning, as eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases. The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic."

The adults in the study were part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Ultra-processed foods were defined as industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. They also included additives and were largely devoid of whole foods. Examples were frozen pizza, soft drinks, fast-food, sweets, salty snacks, canned soup and most breakfast cereals. From 2001-2018, the intake of ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals like frozen dinners increased the most while the intake of some sugary food and drinks declined.

In the study, minimally processed foods were identified as whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, grains, meat and dairy. The consumption of minimally processed food dropped to 27.4% of all calories from 32.7%.  Examples of processed culinary ingredients were olive oil, butter, sugar and salt. Consumption of these ingredients increased to 5.4% from 3.9%. Examples of processed foods were cheese, canned fish and canned beans. Consumption of processed foods remained steady at about 10% of all calories.

To reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods, the researchers recommended policies such as revised dietary guidelines, marketing restrictions, packaging labeling changes and taxes on the items.