Grocery Display / Dean Hochman

Americans are used to breaking down their foods into different groups—and to plenty of different opinions about just what that breakdown should look like. But there’s another category of food we haven’t been tracking, one that now makes up more than half of everything we eat.

Instead of breaking down food into the more traditional categories that we’re used to (proteins, vegetables, fruits), a new study out in BMJ today concerns itself with just one question: Processed or not? When you look just at that, processed foods make up a full 57.9 percent of all calories consumed in America.

Processed foods, they said, were any foods that “include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.”

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Of course, besides being incredibly appetizing, that definition is also so expansive as to sound almost meaningless; especially when you consider how wide-ranging the examples were. (A list of the most common foods included “breads; soft drinks, fruit drinks and milk-based drinks; cakes, cookies and pies; salty snacks; frozen and shelf-stable plates; pizza and breakfast cereals.”)

The justification for pulling them altogether becomes a little clearer though when you look at where the calories were actually coming from in different groups. The heavy-hitters in providing calories in unprocessed or minimally processed foods were meat, fruit, and milk. In the processed category, most calories were due to added sugar and oil.

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So what can we do with this information? Besides being the source of half of all calories, processed foods were the primary source of almost sugar eaten by Americans—so much so that only the bottom 20 percent of processed food eaters were under the recommended limits. Last fall the FDA recommended requiring an add-on to nutritional labels showing the percent daily value of sugar in each serving. It may or may or not curtail how much sugar we’ve eaten at the end of the day. But, at the very least, it would be a reminder that we have to start taking processed food—and how much of our diet it makes up—seriously.


Follow the author at @misra.