If you are what you eat, Americans are unfortunately artificial. For all the Food Movement has achieved, from the elevation of farmers markets to leading a national conversation about inequities in our food system, the average American’s diet still consists mainly of junk food. Researchers at Tufts University and the University of São Paulo have learned that 57.9 percent of the average American’s calorie intake comes from what the team refers to as “ultra-processed foods.” Access to healthy food and the learned habits to consume it seems to be out of reach for many Americans.

fruits, vegetables, fresh produce

Processed foods are not necessarily unhealthy. The Food and Drug Administration has defined “fresh food” as food that has been only harvested, cleaned, and coated, i.e. fruits, vegetables, mushrooms. Under this definition, if the vegetable has been frozen, it is considered processed. However, the research team focused only on ultra-processed foods, which they define as “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

Related: Incredible edible landscape map shows you where to find free food

Beyond the 57.9 percent of calories consumed from ultra-processed sources, the study found that 29.6 percent of the average American diet consists of minimally processed or unprocessed food, which includes meat, produce, eggs, and milk. 9.4 percent comes from processed foods, such as cheese or preserved produce. The remainder is derived from “processed culinary ingredients,” such as oils, salt, and seasonings.

The researchers are most concerned about the added sugar in ultra-processed foods, which has been linked to health problems such as obesity and diabetes. These sugar-packed processed foods have replaced nutrient-dense, filling foods. Those who consume ultra-processed foods may finish their dish feeling “simultaneously overfed and undernourished.” The researchers identify sugary drinks as one of the main sources of added sugar in the American diet and recommend replacing that can of soda or glass of juice with water. While individual actions can make an impact, the widespread failure to eat healthy suggests a structural failure in the American food system. Shifting subsidies from corn or corn syrup to fresh produce would be an excellent start at addressing this problem.

Via the Atlantic

Images via Masahiro Ihara/Flickr and Rex Sorgatz/Flickr