Food Available in the United States Today
73 percent of the United States’ food supply is ultra-processed. This is according to research from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute. Ultra-processed foods have been successful in displacing ‘real food’ in most parts of the world. The TrueFood database, which captures and compares the degree of processing of thousands of foods, suggests that ultra-processed foods are 52 percent cheaper than less processed alternatives, on average. Their convenience, hyper-palatability, branding and ownership by transnational corporations, and aggressive marketing give ultra-processed foods enormous market advantages over all other food groups.
Convenience at the Expense of Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity prevalence among adults in the United States increased from 30.5 percent to 41.9 percent from 1999-2000 through 2017-March 2020. During the same time, the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7 percent to 9.2 percent. Among children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years, the prevalence of obesity roughly doubled between 1988-1994 and 2017-2018.
Several factors contribute to excess weight gain among adults and youth. Among these are genetics, types and amounts of food and drinks consumed, sleep habits, medical conditions or medicines, and where and how people live. This includes their access to and ability to afford healthy foods and safe places to be active.
In supermarkets and food outlets, Americans have easy access to ultra-processed foods prepared using industrial techniques. Many health experts believe that heavily processed “foods” could be at the root of America’s soaring obesity and chronic disease rates. Ultra-processed foods make meals cheap and convenient, but they can lead to overeating and weight gain and may contribute to metabolic syndrome and chronic disease.
Ultra-processed foods make up more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in high-income countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. In American youths ages 2 to 19, 67 percent of daily calories come from ultra-processed foods.
Convenience is the attraction to our industrial food system. However, the efficiency and affordability come with reduced nutritional content, the loss of wholesome flavor, and the damaging impact that these foods have on our physical health.
What is Processed Food?
Typical health guidance advises us to avoid processed foods. However, almost all foods are processed to some extent, if only by preservation. Some processing is not harmful, such as pasteurization and other means of ensuring microbial safety.
However, processing can profoundly affect the healthfulness of foods. Four forms of processing have serious adverse effects on the quality of food: refining grains, partial hydrogenation of oils, refinement of sugar cane to make sugar, and adding excessive amounts of salt and other preservatives.
To determine how healthy a food is, we must evaluate the food as a whole rather than focus on one nutrient at a time. The NOVA classification system categorizes all foods and food products into four groups based on the nature, extent and purpose of the physical, biological and chemical processes they have undergone following separation from nature. There are four processing levels.
NOVA Classification Levels
|Group 1||Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods|
|Group 2||Processed Culinary Ingredients|
|Group 3||Processed Foods|
|Group 4||Ultra-Processed Food and Drink Products|
Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
Group 1 classification includes foods that have not been altered from their natural state; or that have only undergone minimal processes. These foods do not contain added substances such as salt, sugar, oils, or fats, but they may infrequently contain preservatives.
Unprocessed (natural) foods include the edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
Examples of Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
|Millets||Fresh and pasteurized milk|
|Wheat flour||Unflavored yogurt|
|Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables||Legumes|
|Unprocessed meats and poultries||Nuts|
Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum-packaging. These processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage, or to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume. Processes such as canning, freezing, fermentation, and vacuum-packaging ensure the safety and preservation of food while maintaining a food’s nutritional integrity.
Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients
Group 2 classification includes substances used to prepare, season and cook Group 1 foods. These are derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, crushing, milling and drying. Processed culinary ingredients are not meant to be consumed by themselves and are normally used for seasoning and cooking unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Examples of Processed Culinary Ingredients
Group 3: Processed Foods
Group 3 classification includes products manufactured by industry by adding group 2 ingredients to unprocessed or minimally processed foods to preserve or make them more palatable. The purpose of processing is to increase the durability of Group 1 foods and to make them more enjoyable by modifying or enhancing their sensory qualities. Processed foods may contain preservatives, antioxidants, and stabilizers.
Examples of Processed Foods
|Canned/bottled vegetables and legumes|
|Fruits in syrup|
|Salted or sugared nuts and seeds|
|Canned fish and meats|
|Breads made of ingredients used in culinary preparations|
Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods
Group 4 classification consists of ready to eat/drink/heat industrial formulations that are made with multiple ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories, while containing little whole foods. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives. The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create highly profitable, hyper-palatable ready to consume products with a long shelf-life.
In addition to Group 2 foods like salt, sugar, oils and fats, and preservatives, ultra-processed foods include ingredients not used in culinary preparations. Food substances of no or rare culinary use include varieties of sugars, modified oils, and protein sources. Cosmetic additives disguise undesirable sensory properties created by ingredients, processes or packaging, or else make the final product especially attractive to see, taste, smell and/or touch. Flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives are used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods or to disguise undesirable aspects of the final product.
These products are termed ‘ultra-processed’ because they are created through a series of industrial processes. Processing begins with the fractioning of whole foods into substances that include sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fiber. These substances are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses. Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications.
Subsequent processes involve the assembly of unmodified and modified food substances with little if any whole food using industrial techniques such as extrusion, moulding and pre-frying. Colors, flavors, emulsifiers and other additives are frequently added to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable. Processing ends with sophisticated packaging that is often vivid and features health claims.
Examples of Ultra-Processed Foods
|Carbonated drinks||Mass-produced packaged breads and buns|
|Fruit flavored drinks||Margarines and other spreads|
|Sweet/savory packaged snacks||Cookies (biscuits)|
|Candies||Pastries, cakes, cake mixes|
|Ready to eat/heat pizza, sandwich, burger||Breakfast cereals|
|Frozen or shelf-stable dishes||Pre-prepared pies, pasta and pizza dishes|
|Chocolate||Poultry and fish nuggets and sticks|
|Powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles||Sausages, burgers, hot dogs|
|Ice cream||Other reconstituted meat products|
Ultra-processed foods are hyper-palatable “industrial formulations” that stray from their organic origins. They are highly caloric but offer little nutritional value. They are typically high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, and low in dietary fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Processing food removes or destroys many naturally-occurring nutrients present in whole foods which cannot be replaced by supplements or added vitamins. Despite health claims that may appear on product packaging, the food industry cannot replicate the health benefits of whole foods.
What to Eat and What Not to Eat
Now you should have an understanding of the typical processes used to produce foods. Given this information, how can you choose foods that will provide nutrition without harming your health? Before you buy or consume food, consider how it is made. Here are some guidelines you can follow to make healthy food choices.
Eat This: Real Food
Real food is whole food: unprocessed fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy products, nuts, seeds and grains. Whole foods are unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals. When you eat whole foods you are eating the entire food with all of its vitamins, minerals and fiber, and the food has not been subjected to potentially damaging processing.
Real food is fresh, nutritious, predominantly local, seasonal, grass-fed, as wild as possible, free of synthetic chemicals, whole or minimally processed, and ecologically diverse.
Eat This: Fresh Food
The closer a food is to its natural state, the more nutrient-dense it is. Foods that are highly nutritious attract living microorganisms that break down the food and can also make us sick. For this reason, whole foods have a short shelf life. They should be consumed within a day of harvest for maximal nutritional content.
Consider the difference between fresh, real bread and shelf-stable processed bread. The primary ingredient used to make bread is wheat, a long grass. Wheat is harvested for its berries, which consist of three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ.
The wheat germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat berry, providing a variety of minerals, fiber, essential vitamins, antioxidants and phytosterols. The highly nutritious wheat germ attracts microorganisms which break down the nutrients and cause the wheat to spoil. Bread that is baked with whole, unprocessed grain spoils within a day.
Industrially produced wheat is refined, removing the bran and the wheat germ to produce white flour. White flour is used to produce a bread-like product that will keep longer but is missing nutrients. From a nutritional standpoint, it is better to consume fresh bread baked with whole wheat rather than shelf-stable bread baked with refined wheat.
Industrially produced foods travel long distances from farm to grocery store. Consumers expect produce to be ripe, attractive and flavorful. If industrial farms harvested fruits and vegetables when ripe, they would spoil before they reached their final destination. To extend the shelf life, produce is either picked unripe and then artificially ripened or it is processed to extend shelf life, often using synthetic chemicals to prevent microbial growth.
The most commonly used chemical for artificial ripening is calcium carbide. When exposed to moisture, it produces acetylene gas, which is an analogue to ethylene. This quickens the ripening process. When produce is artificially ripened, it does not develop the same density of nutrients it would have if it were harvested when ripe. Fruits ripen when they absorb moisture, minerals, and other necessary components from the soil. As the fruit grows, its storage cells expand and fill with water, sugars, organic acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Eat This: Locally Grown Produce
It is well-known that fruits and vegetables taste better freshly harvested from a garden than when purchased from a store. Some foods lose nutrients during transportation and storage. Locally grown produce does not travel long distances from farm to table, so it is fresher and retains more nutrients than non-local produce.
If you cannot grow your own garden, the best source for locally produced, fresh foods is farms in your area. When you buy directly from local farms, you not only purchase the best in quality and nutrition for your family. You also support the farmer who is often at a disadvantage competing with the industrial food system. Through choosing to support local farms, you strengthen your community economy and help to keep local producers in business.
Instead of grocery stores, shop from farmer’s markets or join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Avoid This: Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are intrinsically unhealthy due to the nature of the processes and ingredients used in their manufacture. To create foods that can last for days, weeks, or even months on the shelf, and can be transported across states and countries, food corporations have to reduce the nutrient content, while adding preservatives and additives to maintain freshness, flavor and texture. Ultra-processed foods are typically high in added sugar, trans-fat, sodium, and refined starch and low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Cohort studies provide consistent evidence suggesting that high intake of ultra-processed foods contributes to obesity and cardiometabolic risk factors in children and adults. It is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain types of cancers, and total mortality in adults.
A review of food trends published in Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology reported that consumption of ultra-processed food was associated with weight gain. The most weight gain was attributed to ultra-processed foods such as potato chips, sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, refined grains, and processed meats.
Conversely, weight loss or less weight gain was associated with eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked eating ultra-processed foods to type 2 diabetes. After adjusting for co-morbidities and weight change, the researchers concluded that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods consistently increased risk for type 2 diabetes. In many cases, type 2 diabetes is related to lifestyle choices that can be modified with a structured wellness and fitness plan.
How to Recognize Ultra-Processed Food
The practical way to identify whether a product is ultra-processed is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the ultra-processed food group. This includes either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing (‘cosmetic additives’).
Food substances not used in kitchens appear in the beginning or in the middle of the lists of ingredients of ultra-processed foods. Several examples are listed in the table. The presence in the list of ingredients of one or more of these food substances identifies a product as ultra-processed.
Cosmetic additives are at the end of lists of ingredients of ultra-processed foods, together with other additives. The presence in the list of ingredients of one or more additives that belong to these classes of additives also identifies a product as ultra-processed.
It is important to check ingredient labels because foods that may appear to be healthy can actually be ultra-processed. For example:
Industrial breads made only from wheat flour, water, salt and yeast are processed foods, while those whose lists of ingredients also include emulsifiers or colors are ultra-processed.
Ingredients Characteristic of Ultra-Processed Foods
|SUBSTANCES NOT USED IN KITCHENS||COSMETIC ADDITIVES|
|Soya protein isolate||Flavor enhancers|
|Whey protein||Emulsifying salts|
|Mechanically separated meat||Sweeteners|
|High-fructose corn syrup||Anti-foaming agents|
|Fruit juice concentrate||Bulking agents|
|Invert sugar||Carbonating agents|
|Soluble or insoluble fiber|
|Hydrogenated or interesterified oil|
|Other sources of protein, carbohydrate or fat which are neither foods from NOVA Group 1 or Group 3, nor culinary ingredients from NOVA Group 2|
Plain steel-cut oats, plain corn flakes and shredded wheat are minimally processed foods, while the same foods are processed when they also contain sugar, and ultra-processed if they also contain flavors or colors.
Avoid This: Industrially Mass-Produced Meat
Leviticus 11 of the Bible, in which God outlines animals that are and are not fit for consumption, specifies:
Chewing the cud is a part of the digestive process of ruminant animals.
Ruminants have multi-chambered stomachs. When they eat plant material such as grass or foliage, the ingested plant material is stored in the first chamber, called the rumen, where it softens. They later regurgitate this material, called cud, and chew it again to further break down its cellulose content. The chewed cud goes directly to the other chambers of the stomach where it is further digested.
Ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats are designed to graze over stretches of grass. This is further illustrated in Genesis 1:
Industrial farming often consists of food monocultures, in which a single species of crop or livestock is produced. This mass production removes the delicate ecological balance which is found in diversity.
Industrial meat operations are cruel to animals. Instead of being allowed to roam and graze on a variety of plants, factory farmed cattle are confined and fed commercial animal feed made primarily of corn and soy. Cattle’s rumens are designed to digest various grasses and plants, not massive amounts of grain. These grain-based diets cause disease and general ill health, such as stomach ulcers. Cattle are known to be herbivores, but they are also fed animal products.
Additionally, unsanitary animal factory conditions create the need for antibiotics to prevent the animals from dying. This has contributed to the global antibiotic resistance crisis.
When you consume factory-raised livestock, you are consuming growth hormones, genetically modified animal feed, antibiotics, vaccines, and anything else the animal has been exposed to. You should avoid animals that have been fed processed seed oils, such as chicken, pork or farm-raised fish. These unnatural additions to animal meat qualify mass-produced meat as ultra-processed food.
Instead, choose grass-fed meats, free-range poultry and wild-caught fish. Animals that have been treated humanely and allowed to roam in an ecologically rich environment are more nutritious for us to consume, with a higher omega-3 fatty acid content among other benefits.
Avoid This: Seed Oils
The United States consumes more seed oils per person than any other nation and has the highest obesity rate in the developed world. Industrially processed seed oils were introduced in 1911, when Procter & Gamble used a newly invented hydrogenation process to convert surplus unusable cotton seeds into a synthetic seed oil, sold as Crisco. Seed oils are found in most processed foods, with up to 50% or more of the overall calories contained in most processed foods coming from seed oils. Processed seed oils cause oxidation, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, memory impairment, impaired immune function and increased mortality.
It is important to understand that oils are fats, and that not all fats are harmful to your body. Fats are storage units composed of individual fatty acids, and they are the primary building blocks of membranes in all of our cells.
Saturated fatty acids are characterized by a single bond between carbon atoms and they are solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fatty acids contain one or more double bonds between carbon atoms. The presence of double bonds creates a bend in the carbon chain, making fat molecules less compact. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Due to the double bonds, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are highly perishable and susceptible to oxidative damage. PUFAs are easily damaged by temperature. When in a warm environment such as the human body, they quickly harden into solid masses due to oxidative damage. Animals who live in warmer environments must limit PUFAs and use saturated fats for storage because PUFAs in hot temperatures are incompatible with life.
Linoleic acid (LA) is an omega-6 PUFA found in seed oils. Linoleic acid makes up 60-80% of omega-6 fats. PUFAs such as LA are easily damaged by oxygen in a process called oxidation, which triggers the creation of free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells, cell membranes, DNA, stem cells, and mitochondria. They are unstable oxygen or nitrogen molecules because they have an uneven or unpaired amount of electrons. When a molecule loses an electron and becomes a free radical, it seeks to rebalance itself and steals an electron from other healthy cells, thus creating more unbalanced molecules. Excess free radicals rapidly accelerate aging and contribute to a wide variety of diseases.
Excess free radicals result from a surplus of omega-6 fat in the form of seed oils. Omega-6 fats are not inherently dangerous, but they should only comprise 1-2% of your diet. Omega-6 is only harmful in excess amounts due to its susceptibility to damage from oxidative stressors in the environment.
When seed oils are damaged by oxidative stress they form harmful by-products that can contribute to inflammation and chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis, and aging.
You should keep your intake of LA as low as possible. Research shows that animals typically develop cancer once the LA in their diet reaches 4% to 10% of their energy intake. The half-life of LA is 680 days, or approximately two years. It would take you six years to replace 95% of the LA in your body with healthy fats.
Primary sources of LA include seed oils used in cooking, processed foods and restaurant foods made with seed oils, condiments, seeds and nuts, adulterated olive oils and avocado oils, and animal foods raised on grains such as conventional chicken and pork.
Common Cooking Oils and their Linoleic Acid Content
|COOKING OIL||Average % LINOLEIC ACID|
|Grape Seed Oil||70%|
|Rice Bran Oil||33%|
|Tallow (Grass Fed)||1%|
|Butter (Grass Fed)||1%|
|CAFO||concentrated animal |
Instead of seed oils and vegetable oils, cook with coconut oil or animal fats such as grass fed butter, grass fed tallow, ghee, or lard. Animal cooking fats provide fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A or retinol and vitamin D.
In addition to high levels of linoleic acid, seed oils contain toxins naturally contained in the seeds of plants. The worst toxins in plants are contained in the seeds because they are critical to the plants’ reproductive processes. Some plants hide seeds within sweet tasting fruit to entice animals to eat and distribute the seeds. Other plants do not make fruit but animals may still attempt to eat the seeds. Plants seeds contain self-generated pesticides which block digestion in any animal predator that eats them. This is a natural defense mechanism to preserve the longevity of the plant species.
The Biblical Significance of Eating Nutritious Food
Real food is food grown the way God intended: Fresh, nutritious, predominantly local, seasonal, grass-fed, as wild as possible, free of synthetic chemicals, whole or minimally processed, and ecologically diverse. Most foods as purchased and consumed are processed to some extent. Foods benefit, and are made more available, when processed by various harmless methods of preservation; and some processes enhance food quality.
However, ultra-processed foods are not ‘real food’. They are formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready-to-consume hyper-palatable food and drink products using cosmetic additives such as flavors, colors, and emulsifiers. Ultra-processing makes food products highly profitable, appealing and intrinsically unhealthy.
Processing food destroys many nutrients and flavor. Real foods are designed the way God intended them to be consumed – in its whole form. The Bible provides several illustrations of God’s intention for mankind to eat whole, fresh, unprocessed food. Instead of modifying foods for our convenience, we should consider why God created them as they are. God is the master Creator, life sustainer, and healer. He knows what we need to thrive and he has provided it to us in its optimal form.
We have a responsibility to glorify God with our bodies. This includes feeding our bodies real food, not harmful food-like products. Our bodies are self-healing, but they require the nutrients to maintain themselves.
Every time we buy food, we support the system that produces it. We should strive for perfection in every area of our lives, including the food we buy and eat, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Our food choices first begin as thoughts, and taking every thought captive unto Christ Jesus includes our thoughts about food.
God desires for us to be healthy. Let us return to Him as provider.
The statements in this article are my opinion, based upon a review of recent research in nutrition and health trends. I am not a nutritionist or medical practitioner. If you have a health concern or existing medical condition, I advise you to consult a physician or nutritionist before making significant lifestyle or nutritional changes.
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