While ultra-processed foods are convenient, low cost, and ready-to-eat, these processed substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) contain little or no whole food. The products are a result of extensive “physical, biological, and chemical processes” that include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives.
A team of researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine set out to investigate whether individuals who consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods experience adverse mental health symptoms including depression, anxious days, and mentally unhealthy days. The team measured the frequency of these symptoms in 10,359 adults who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The experts used the NOVA food classification system, which was recently adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. NOVA considers the nature, extent and purpose of food processing in order to categorize foods and beverages into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods.
The results showed that individuals who consumed the most ultra-processed foods had statistically significant increases in adverse mental health symptoms associated with depression. These individuals also experienced more “mentally unhealthy” and “anxious” days.
According to the researchers, these findings can be applied to the entire United States, as well as to other Western countries with similar ultra-processed food intakes.
“The ultra-processing of food depletes its nutritional value and also increases the number of calories, as ultra-processed foods tend to be high in added sugar, saturated fat and salt, while low in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals,” said study co-author Dr. Eric Hecht.
“More than 70 percent of prepresent about 60 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. Given the magnitude of packaged foods in the U.S. are classified as ultra-processed food and exposure to and effects of ultra-processed food consumption, our study has significant clinical and public health implications.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults live with a mental illness. Mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, are leading causes of morbidity, disability and mortality.
This research was funded in part by the Bertarelli Foundation. It is published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.