The Lowdown on Ultra-Processed Foods

Buckle your seatbelts everyone: according to new research conducted at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, ultra-processed foods are about to replace tobacco as the leading cause of death in Americans. 

The study was conducted by Zach Hutelin, a graduate student working on his doctoral degree, and Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an assistant professor at Fralin and associate director of the institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research. 

Are you not quite sure you know what ultra-processed foods are? In a nutshell, they’ve gone through multiple processes, like extrusion, molding, and milling. Another hallmark is that they contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated. Examples are chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries, and a whole lot more. Consumption of these bad boys translates to higher risks of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and coronary heart disease. 

If you’re still not sure what ultra-processed foods are, DiFeliceantonio’s advice is to count the ingredients listed on the package. “A lot of packaged foods in the grocery store are ultra-processed. So, if you are holding something in a package, turn it over, if it’s got just a few ingredients, it’s probably not an ultra-processed food,” she says. “If the ingredient list is really long and has things you have never used in your home kitchen, it’s probably an ultra-processed food.”

She also calls out diet soda fans, saying, “Watch out for artificial sweeteners. Lots of llow-sugar or no-sugar products contain them.” Even alcohol like whisky, gin, and rum. DiFeliceantonio’s tried and true method for finding healthier choices? “Stick to the outer edges of the grocery store—the perimeter of the store contains mostly fresh foods. This is a good way to avoid ultra-processed foods.”

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