Processed food concerns: Local researcher creates free database to find out what we’re really eating

It’s easy to feel like a degree from M.I.T is necessary to decipher the ingredient label on many popular processed foods.

The shelves of grocery stores are increasingly filled with products that are now referred to as “Ultra Processed Food.”

“Some people define them in terms of basically taking foods and formulating them through a series of industrial processes and including ingredients that are rarely used in kitchens,” explained Kevin Hall, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health. “Like flavor additives, artificial sweeteners, and emulsifiers.”

While some of these highly manipulated foods have been on sale for years, Hall says things are different now.

“I think what has changed is that the sheer ubiquity and marketing and convenience of those foods has definitely increased over the past several decades,” said Hall. “Previously they have formed a minority of calories that people have eaten, and now they form a majority of calories.”

Giulia Menichetti, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at Northeastern University where she is working on a project to help consumers make more informed decisions about the products they buy. “The Foodome project aims to track the full chemical complexity of the food we consume and understand its impact on our health.”

One part of Foodome is a free interactive website. It allows shoppers to compare similar products to find out which one is less processed.

Each product gets a simple numeric grade.

The site also allows someone to dig deeper on the sub-ingredients to find out what’s really in that particular food.

“Our ultra-processed food is associated with many different types of diseases and health conditions, for example, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease,” Menichetti said.

The problem now, according to Menichetti, is that consumers are not able to figure out which products are less processed.

While it would be nice to think people would just start scarfing down loads of broccoli instead of choosing a processed product, Menichetti thinks baby steps will still be a win.

“So, the idea is let’s try to help them shift their dietary habits gradually. Because many of us know we should be eating our veggies and fruits, but the reality is that we don’t do it.”

The Foodome project estimates almost three quarters of the American food supply is now ultra-processed.

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