By John Salak –
It is hard to find good things to say about ultra-processed foods. Just ask the World Health Organization (WHO). This group attributed the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods as one of the key reasons that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled in the last 50 years.
These foods, after all, are everywhere and currently make up more than half of what adults eat. It leads to gaining weight and raises the risk of heart disease, hypertension and breast and colorectal cancers, among other problems.
The U.S. government certainly isn’t advocating anyone chow down on these foods, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did report that it constructed a healthy diet, which involved 91 percent of calories coming from ultra-processed foods as classified using the NOVA scale. The department’s diet model followed recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The USDA wasn’t simply trying to promote the conception of these foods but highlighting the versatility of DGA recommendations in constructing healthy menus.
“The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where ultra-processed foods can be an option,” reported ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of a food and its place in a food group is more important than the extent to which a food was processed.”
The USDA study used the NOVA scale to determine which foods to classify as ultra-processed. Under these guidelines, foods can be classified into four groups depending on their degree of processing: unprocessed or minimally processed foods; processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods.
The research team then created a menu with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks using MyPyramid as a guide for a seven-day, 2,000-calorie food pattern The foods selected also aligned with 2020 DGA recommendations for servings of groups and subgroups of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.
Now, while the foods were identified as ultra-processed, the menus were not built on dirty water hot dogs, deli cold cuts, packaged cookies and sugary drinks. The foods involved had relatively lower saturated fats and added sugars while still containing enough micronutrients and macronutrients to meet most dietary standards. The foods used include canned beans, instant oatmeal, ultra-filtered milk, whole wheat bread and dried fruit.
“We used the Healthy Eating Index to assess the diet quality as it aligns with key DGA recommendations,” Hess said. “The menu we developed scored 86 of 100 points on the Healthy Eating Index-2015, meeting most of the thresholds, except for sodium content and whole grains.”
The USDA’s report is unlikely to ignite a surge in consumption of ultra-processed foods. It is already dangerously high. But it does show even these foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet with forethought and planning.