MSU researcher shows that calories relate directly to sodium and price in ultra processed foods

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February 10, 2023

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are a dominant food group in the American diet, comprising more than 50% of total dietary energy. The Food and Health Engineering Laboratory (FHEL), run by Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) photo of pizzaassistant professor Ilce Medina-Meza, Ph.D., evaluated the nutritional quality of UPFs. They looked at fatty acids, sugar, and sodium contents in a variety of foods as well as how those food attributes are related to the price and portion size. Some of the food used in the study was purchased at different fast-food (FF) restaurants, and some convenience snack foods -also known as ready-to-eat meals (RTE)- were purchased from several grocery stores in Michigan. 

The overall goal of the study was to provide new quantitative data on the nutritional profile of UPFs. The first finding was that the total calories in a food are directly related to sodium and price. As calories increase, sodium and price increase as well. 

The FHEL states that it is common to see in UPFs an increase in price with an increase in the number of ingredients used and the amount of food served. That’s how more calories are added to a single meal. Additionally, sodium increases with calories mainly because of its use as a preservation method in RTE meals and other FF options. 

Not only these results confirmed the relationship of sodium and price with the caloric content of UPFs, but they also showed them as critical factors for people facing food insecurity.

 “UPFs are popular for being fast, cheap, and convenient meals.” said Medina-Meza. “Thus, it is important to acknowledge their effect on people’s dietary preferences and nutritional patterns.”

Everyone has experienced the struggle of constantly looking for the best and cheapest food option. Maintaining a healthy diet is challenging and expensive. But individuals facing food insecurity daily dealing with this issue are forced to set their dietary health as the last of their priorities. Our results showed how UPF prices could determine people’s nutritional choices and preferences when money is a lacking factor in a household by gravitating towards cheaper and more dense meals that can satisfy their hunger.  

The second finding is focused on one of the vulnerable populations, infants. According to the American Heart Association, monosaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation. This study discovered that monosaturated fats (MUFAs) were the predominant fatty acids group in baby foods. This can fill the nutritional needs of babies in a cost-effective solution. 

“MUFAs are associated with favorable nutritional properties that benefit infants during this critical period in life.” Said Medina-Meza. “Therefore, we hope that this study promotes active surveillance of the occurrence of these compounds in UPFs, which may enhance current production strategies during food processing that will improve the overall food quality.”

In general, UPFs are an essential and convenient food option for everyone in the USA, especially, for vulnerable populations like children and elderly people. Infants and children are beneficiated from consuming different RTE meals, such as baby foods, infant formulas, and other pre-prepared snacks. At the same time, older people require specific textures and nutrient loads in their foods based on their preferences and needs. By decreasing the sugar, salt, and serving size of ultra-processed foods, there is an opportunity to improve the nutritional quality, which will improve the nutritional quality of these foods—being our primary goal to protect vulnerable populations and provide adequate nutrition.

Medina-Meza concludes, “We aim to improve the nutritional quality and formulation of UPFs by providing new data about their attributes, such as fatty acids profile, salt, and sugar content. This study will enable the opportunity to define priority interventions for more advanced precision nutrition, especially for vulnerable populations such as infants and the elderly.”