A surprising study this week found that ultra-processed foods (UPF) are linked to 32 diseases affecting every major organ in the body.
We’ve always known that donuts and French fries are terrible for us, but as I discovered firsthand this week, many of the things we eat and consider “healthy” have gone through several rounds of industrial processing.
Experts say it’s no longer enough to analyze calorie, fat or sugar labels: it’s a lower case The fine print on the back of labels you really need to pay attention to: the ingredient list.
A simple rule of thumb is to stick to products with fewer than five ingredients and avoid products with ingredients that are difficult to pronounce.
So that was my goal when I went shopping for my regular meals at three popular grocery stores: Wegman’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s.
Many of my dinners consist of chicken and vegetables, but the marinated chicken I like to eat had an ingredient list too long to name.
I had to switch from my usual marinated chicken to one that was more expensive and required extra work to prepare.
Not all “healthy” foods are created equal. The ingredients in the yogurts varied greatly and only one of the five I bought had less than five ingredients.
The vegan popcorn I chose with less than five ingredients was almost two dollars more than the UPF product on the shelf next to me.
What I found was terrifying. The oatmeal, chicken breasts, and salad kits I eat regularly are packed with dozens of scientific-sounding additives, preservatives, and thickening agents that have caused my body countless problems.
And finding true “whole foods” seems to be deliberately difficult and tedious. For every raw product, there were five or more UPFs on the shelves.
Even when a food’s packaging said things like “not fried,” “organic,” or “only 110 calories per serving,” looking at the ingredients list revealed they were no better.
All of this made me realize that avoiding UPF is much harder than I thought.
So how hard was it to avoid UPF and what did it reveal about what I eat?
WHY DOES THE BACK OF MY SALAD READ LIKE THE INVENTORY OF A SCIENCE LAB?
To start the day, I usually eat a bowl of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal with added protein to keep me full throughout the morning.
I like the maple and brown sugar variety because it also gives me a little sweet taste to curb my craving.
However, upon reading the label I discovered that it had more than five ingredients and several of them were gum and artificial colors. It costs $2.99.
I swapped it for a healthier alternative that only had one ingredient: organic whole-grain rolled oats, but it cost $3.69, 23 percent more.
One surprising offender I discovered at the store was a popular prepared salad that I turn to for lunch. While I thought they were healthy, they are salads after all! – It had some seriously concerning ingredients, including xanthan gum.
Chewing gum is a polysaccharide that is used as a food additive, thickening agent and stabilizer, but has been linked to bloating and diarrhea. Polysaccharides have been associated with irregular heartbeats, difficulty breathing, and even seizures.
It costs $4.49
That’s a lot less than buying fresh produce separately and making your own salad when the lettuce alone costs $3. That doesn’t take into account what you’ll have to spend on tomatoes, broccoli, avocado, dressings or any other garnishes.
The brown sugar oatmeal I like for breakfast had more than five ingredients, compared to the plain rolled oat product, which only had one.
This prepared rice had a long list of ingredients, including some I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce.
I thought I was choosing a healthier alternative to chips, but one of my favorite snacks could be classified as UPF
MIDDAY MUNCHIES AND A HOMEMADE DINNER
When it comes to snacking between meals, I like popcorn or non-fried alternatives to chips. While I thought these were better options, it turns out that one of my favorites could be classified as UPF because it has more than 10 ingredients.
The smarter option was air-fried popcorn with fewer ingredients, but it cost about a dollar more for less product.
Many of my dinners consist of chicken, rice, and vegetables, but the marinated chicken I like to eat had an ingredient list too long to name compared to plain organic chicken which only had one ingredient: chicken.
However, my preference was around $8 and organic was $13, a 63 percent increase.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prepared rice I like as a side was actually more expensive than the plain brown rice found a few shelves away: $2.99 compared to $1.29.
My choice had over 20 ingredients and the plain rice had only two.
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LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET
Sometimes I would not only get physically lost in the cereal, pasta, and bread aisles searching for products, but I would end up mentally lost trying to scan ingredient lists for healthier alternatives.
Sometimes I felt overwhelmed comparing labels, looking up the difference between artificial sweeteners, and trying to figure out what hydrogenated oils are and if they can be eaten.
It turns out that health officials and experts agree that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe.”
The ingredient, disguised as trans fat on nutritional labels, is inexpensive and used as a preservative as well as a flavor and texture enhancer.
It’s often found in microwave popcorn (a popular food in my snack arsenal), cakes, cookies, and fried foods, like a package of fried fish fingers that I almost put in my cart.
Those are $5.99.
To follow the natural route, I went to the fishmonger to buy fresh cod, but it was almost triple the price.
Hydrogenated oils can raise a person’s low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), and a diet high in trans fats can lead to heart and vascular disease.
Most of the UPFs I looked at had artificial food dyes, some of which have been associated with major health problems.
Animal studies have shown a link between Red 40, Yellow 6, Yellow 5 food dyes and ADHD, reproductive problems, and multiple cancers.
My shopping list is pretty much the same every trip and consists of staples that will last more than a week, so I can usually estimate what my total will be at checkout.
During a recent trip to the grocery store when I wasn’t paying attention to the ingredients, I spent $40.68 for seven days worth of food, including seasoned chicken, peanut butter, popcorn, rice, and protein bars.
Over the course of a week, that works out to $5.81 per day.
However, during my most recent purchases, I spent $77.15 while trying to avoid UPF, which works out to $11.04 per day.
Needless to say, I was surprised that it cost twice as much per day and almost twice as much per week to eat healthy foods that are good for my nutrition and my body.
And I’m just a person.
It is much more expensive to buy the product alone and make a salad at home than to buy one already prepared, which is considered UPF.
During my most recent shopping trip, I spent $77.15 while trying to avoid UPF
I was surprised that it cost twice as much per day and almost twice as much per week to eat healthy foods that are good for my nutrition and my body.
If parents are looking to feed a family without UPF, that cost can be prohibitively high.
The lack of healthy, affordable food is a well-known problem in the United States and could be the reason why there is a growing prevalence of obesity, which can lead to certain cancers, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But trying to determine which foods are healthy can be tricky, especially with the rise of buzzwords like “organic,” “all-natural,” and “sugar-free.”
Nutritionists have told DailyMail.com that a short list of ingredients indicates that something is natural, contains few additives and has undergone very little processing.
While scientists are unsure of the exact long-term effects of each chemical in ultra-processed foods, repeated studies have linked them to higher rates of obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other potentially devastating conditions.
“There are a lot of ingredients that provide little for real nutrition,” Jessica Cording, a registered dietitian in New Jersey, previously told DailyMail.com.
“More processed foods tend to be less nutritious and (eating them) promotes different types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and cognitive decline.”