Federal dietary guidelines could be updated to advise against ultra-processed food

This undated photo from the National Institutes of Health in June 2019 shows an “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.
This undated photo from the National Institutes of Health in June 2019 shows an “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade. | Shavonne Pocock, National Institutes of Health via Associated Press

Current dietary guidelines for Americans recommend “nutrient-dense” foods like vegetables and whole grains while advising against foods loaded with sodium, added sugars and saturated fats — but no direct guidance on ultra-processed foods is provided.

Scientific experts urge consumers to limit ultra-processed foods due to the link between these foods and adverse health conditions such as obesity, adult diabetes and other chronic diseases.

The lack of guidance on ultra-processed foods opens loopholes for ultra-processed foods — such as chicken nuggets, potato chips, frozen dinners, sugar cereals and fast foods — to meet otherwise carefully crafted nutrition guidelines, per The Washington Post.

Emerging science on ultra-processed foods will be reviewed by the U.S. guidelines committee, potentially altering dietary guidelines which are set to be published in 2025 by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

During its review, the committee will determine if ultra-processed foods influence “growth, size, body composition, risk of overweight and obesity, and weight loss and maintenance,” per The Washington Post.

Research flags the dangers of ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods provide little to no nutritional value and are crammed with a blend of artificial colors, unnatural flavors (like blue raspberry), fats, added sugars, refined starches and other additives, per Harvard Health. Hot dogs, soda, packaged cookies and crackers, cold cuts and fast food are all considered ultra-processed.

“If you can make it at home in your kitchen, then it’s not ultra-processed,” said Marion Nestle, an emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, to The Washington Post. “When I give lectures on this, I find that people understand the concept right away. There’s not much problem defining it.”

These sorts of foods are often considered “empty calories” for their lack of nutritional content. A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that nearly 58% of calories consumed in the U.S. come from ultra-processed foods and almost 90% of energy intake comes from added sugars.

“It is important to highlight that calories are not all created equal,” Dr. Neha Sachdev told the American Medical Association. “So the same calories that you might get from eating an apple, for example, are very different than the calories you might get from eating an apple fruit bar.

“These might be equivalent in number, but what ultra-processed calories represent and the nutrition that they provide your body is different.”

Frequent consumption of ultra-processed foods comes with several potential adverse health effects. Recent studies have linked high consumption of ultra-processed foods to increased dementia risk, heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer and premature death.

Dietary guidelines and public school lunch

Dietary guidelines influence what foods are served in public schools, food assistance programs, government offices and on military bases, per The Washington Post. The National School Lunch Program — which feeds roughly 30 million American kids — serves foods like Lunchables, Cheez-Its and other highly processed junk foods because they currently meet nutritional requirements despite being loaded with additives.

“It’s important for the dietary guidelines to start talking about this,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to The Washington Post. “I hate the fact that kids are getting ultra-processed junk foods in schools when they should be eating healthy food. We’re making them fat and unhealthy.”

U.S. dietary guidelines fall behind

A 2023 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports that the U.S. is behind when it comes to ultra-processed food policy. Countries like Brazil, Israel and Belgium have already updated national dietary guidelines to address ultra-processed foods.

“The emerging policy language in the U.S. on ultra-processed foods is consistent with international policies on the topic. We would urge a more robust discussion and consideration of ultra-processed foods for future policymaking,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study.

“The United States should consider processing levels in school food policies ... to ensure the U.S. Dietary Guidelines reflect the evidence on ultra-processed foods and health.”