Consumption of ultra-processed foods is at an all-time high in Canada

The Heart and Stroke Foundation has released new reports indicating that almost half of our daily caloric intake is in the form of ultra-processed foods. The study analyzed the dietary patterns of Canadians by focusing on processed food intake using a food classification system.

Food is not deemed healthy or unhealthy simply due to ‘processing’. In this study, the leading method used to classify diets according to food processing was the NOVA system. The NOVA system involves physical, biological and chemical processes applied to foods after their separation from nature. NOVA classifies all foods and drinks into four distinct groups, which include:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fresh/dry/frozen vegetables; grains; legumes; fruits; nuts; meat; eggs; milk);
  • Processed culinary ingredients (fats; sugars; oils; salt);
  • Processed foods (bread; cheese; salted/pickled/cured meats; vegetables, legumes, fruits preserved in oil/brine/syrup);
  • Ultra-processed foods (fast food; sugary drinks; chips; candies; sweetened milk products; sweetened cereals; industrialized breads/desserts; packaged soups; partial hydrogenation of oils).

This report examined new Canadian data obtained from the Canadian Community Health Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2015. Among Canadians aged 2 years and above, 38.9% of dietary energy was from unprocessed foods, 6.3% from processed culinary ingredients, 6.5% from processed foods and 48.3% from ultra-processed foods. Overall, total dietary energy of ultra-processed foods was found to be highest among children aged 9 to 13, at 57.2%, and adolescents aged 14 to 18, at 54.7%.

“Ultra-processed foods displace all other food groups. They are usually branded assertively, packaged attractively, and marketed intensively, especially to our children,” the lead researcher, Dr. Moubarac, stated.

There was an interesting variation in total dietary energy from ultra-processed foods among immigrants and their Canadian-born counterparts at 37.8% and 51.6% respectively.

The nutritional quality of the four food groups, as classified by the NOVA system, were also compared in the study. The unprocessed, processed culinary ingredients and processed foods were grouped as one and were then compared to the ultra-processed foods group. Ultra-processed foods had almost half the amount of protein at 11.6% compared with 21.3%; more carbohydrates at 52.3% compared with 46.6%; and more total fat at 35.8% compared with 31.8%. Furthermore, free sugars were three times higher in ultra-processed foods, sodium density was almost twice as high, and dietary fibre was much lower.

A large number of population-based studies from Canada, the United States and Europe support these findings. All the evidence indicates that diets based on freshly prepared meals are healthy, and those that contain large amounts of ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. This is a universal rule.

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