Unprocessed foods tend to be unpalatable and indigestible, so most foods go through some type of processing. It’s the degree to which foods are changed from their natural state that worries healthcare professionals.

Researchers from Brazil and Tufts University in Boston have conducted a study that suggests that cutting back on so-called ultra-processed foods can curb the intake of added sugars that increase our risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Ultra-processed foods are made up of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients, according to the University of Leeds. They are designed to appeal to our taste buds and to our wallets since they cost less to produce and purchase. There are ultra-processed foods waiting in the frozen food section at your local supermarket and in most fast food restaurants and vending machines.

The research team, led by Professor Carlos Augusto Monteiro from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, gathered data from the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. More than 9,000 people provided information about their dietary intake, data researchers used to help understand how ultra-processed foods contribute sugar to the average American diet.

They found that ultra-processed foods delivered nearly 60 percent of total calories eaten and almost 90 percent of calories from added sugars. It’s easy to see how: One out of every five calories in the average ultra-processed food product comes from added sugar, which is significantly more than in processed foods, unprocessed foods, minimally processed foods, and processed culinary ingredients like table salt.

Americans who consumed the lowest amount of ultra-processed foods also only got 10 percent of their total energy intake from added sugars. This is considered the maximum recommended limit in the U.S. On the other hand, those who consumed the most ultra-processed foods got 80 percent of their calories from added sugars.

The ultra-processed foods found in the American diet are particularly concerning for our health because most have a high energy density. That means they contain a lot of calories for the small volume of food the consumer gets, which can drive obesity.

Source: Mozaffarian D, Steele E, Monteiro C, et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016.