How Processed Is Your Food? Thanks to AI, the Answer Is Clearer Than Ever

Written by Claire Hannum

July 12, 2023

Did you know, ultra-processed foods make up an astounding 60% of the average American diet (1)?

Many nutrition experts suggest keeping your ultra-processed food intake as low as possible, but instead it has become the majority of what we eat.

Numbers like this aren’t an accident. Official definitions of ultra-processed food are murky and food labels are confusing and misleading. Ultra-processed options are usually the cheapest and most convenient food products available, taking advantage of consumers who are constrained by money or time. 

Scientists hope to change this by creating a system that can detect how processed any given food is with up to 90% accuracy. Can AI help change America’s approach to food?

The Dangers of Ultra Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are “products that typically line the aisles of our supermarkets that you couldn’t possibly make in your own kitchen,” as food journalist and podcaster Max Lugavere explained on a recent episode of the podcast The Pursuit of Wellness. “Ultra processed foods could only be made in a factory, essentially.”

According to the NOVA food classification system, ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients you wouldn’t use in at-home cooking (think hydrolyzed proteins, modified starches, dyes, flavorings, bulking agents, and preservatives) (2). 

Ultra-processed foods tend to be high in sugar, salt, refined grains, fats, and preservatives. They tend to have lower nutritional value as well. Ice cream, chicken nuggets, soda, energy drinks, sweetened juices, pastries, margarine, chips, packaged cookies, and fast food are all examples of ultra-processed foods. 

“The more ingredients a food product has the more likely it is to be ultra-processed,” Lugavere explained on The Pursuit of Wellness. “[Ultra-processed foods have a] characteristic known as hyper-palatability so we tend not to tire of eating them, and when we do tire of eating them we’ve already over-consumed them. So it’s that phenomenon that I think most people can relate to. Like when you go to the freezer to grab a pint of ice cream, aspiring to only have a spoonful or two of ice cream and you end up seeing the bottom of the pint…that’s how these food products are designed.” A 2019 study found that as many as 62% of foods in the US may be considered to be hyper-palatable (3).

These foods are hard to put down—which may make it difficult to reach your health goals.

Ultra-processed foods are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other serious conditions (4).

A 2019 study conducted in Brazil found that ultra-processed foods were responsible for 10.5% of all premature deaths between the ages of 30 and 69 that year, and for 21.8% of all preventable deaths from non-communicable disease (5). That year, Brazilians’ ultra-processed food intake was between 13-21% of their total food intake. That’s a significantly lower percentage of ultra-processed foods than what the average American eats, so it’s hard to imagine what the results of a similar study could look like in the US.

Ultra-processed foods are linked to cognitive decline, mood changes, and memory issues (6). Recent research has found that for every 10% increment in ultra-processed food consumption, a person’s dementia risk increases by 25% (7).

A UK study on ultra-processed foods’ link to 34 different types of cancer found that each 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was linked to a 2% increased risk of developing cancer, and a 19% increased risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer specifically (8). The study also found that for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, the risk of dying of cancer grew by 6%.

How Food Companies Spin the Truth

It’s not a reach to consider the oversaturation of ultra-processed foods a public health crisis, and many experts have said as much. So why are we not seeing the same public response and call for regulation that we would expect for such a threat to public health? 

“While the healthcare community is very aware that the global pandemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has its origins in our Western ultra-processed food diet, society has been slow to initiate any interventions other than public education, which has been ineffective, in part due to food industry interference,” Dr. Robert H. Lustig explained in a 2020 paper for the journal Nutrients (9).

The food industry benefits from ultra-processed foods remaining on shelves, and many will make whatever claims they can to make their products seem healthier than they are. 

Health-related claims on food packaging are usually deceptive at best. A food that claims to be low-fat or fat-free is likely relying on added sugars to make up for lost taste (10). Ingredients may be given misleading names on nutrition labels that make them sound healthier or are impossible to interpret, like E407 instead of carrageenan or “fruit sugar” instead of fructose. Research has found that ingredient name swaps like these can skew public perception of the nutritional value of a food product (11).

Misleading serving sizes and claims like whole wheat and natural (which don’t always mean they are healthy) add to the confusion.

Studies have found that health claims on the front of food packaging cause consumers to believe that the food product is healthier than the same product without those health claims (12, 13, 14).

Enter FoodProX, a New AI-Powered Nutrition Tool

Current definitions of ultra-processed foods are vague, and as we’ve seen, food companies are all too happy to add to the confusion. This all adds up to a whole lot of stressful moments in the grocery aisle, squinting and scrutinizing food labels to try to understand the ingredients.

But in April of this year, researchers in Boston introduced a powerful AI-powered tool that could offer a solution. FoodProX, a machine-learning classifier, has shown to have a 90% accuracy rate in determining how processed a food product is (15). The tool takes stock of a food’s nutrient concentrations to determine the likelihood that it is considered ultra-processed.

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This is a game changer. Previous frameworks for defining what is ultra-processed were subjective and qualitative, while FoodProX relies on hard data. FoodProX’s algorithm can fill in the gaps created by more open-ended frameworks like NOVA, the classification system mentioned earlier in this article. NOVA’s system classifies food into four categories based on factors like ingredients and how many steps of processing it goes through before reaching your kitchen.

It’s a helpful tool, but it requires a manual process for each food item, which is much more arduous than FoodProX’s automated capabilities. NOVA offers less room for precision and nuance between categories of food—and nuance is very important when we’re parsing through the minute details of a public health crisis.

FoodProX’s creators say the system is scalable, portable, and reproducible. If it reaches widespread use, it could empower consumers with a level of food transparency we’ve never seen before. When more people know the truth about their food, more healthy choices—and ingredient changes—are possible.

Holding Food Companies Accountable

FoodProX just might be the first AI platform to hold the food industry accountable for confusing ingredient labeling, but this powerful new technology is arriving on the heels of many years of hard-won food battles fought by humans.

Food activists have been fighting for more accessible healthy options for decades, but the last ten years have shown a particular sea change of companies capitulating to those who are willing to make noise.

Most recently, Vani Hari, an author and activist, has won several public battles over ultra-processed foods. Two years after she wrote about ingredients that concerned her in Chick-fil-A’s famous sandwich, the company announced a plan to remove dyes and corn syrup from their products. She’s also called out brands like Chipotle, who ultimately released more detailed ingredient listings and removed GMOs from their products; and Subway, who then removed a flour bleaching agent and dough conditioner called azodicarbonamide (sometimes called the “yoga mat chemical”). After Subway, several other brands followed suit in removing the ingredient from their menus.

Technology like FoodProX could be a new way for consumers to speak out—and have their voices heard. Most of us who don’t scrutinize our food’s ingredients don’t do it because we simply don’t have time to spend hours poring over misleading labels and company websites. But if an algorithm is able to generate accurate data about food in the blink of an eye, the knowledge will become easier to access than ever—and more consumers will vote with their dollars for healthier, transparently labeled food.

Claire Hannum
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Claire Hannum

Claire Hannum is a New York City-based writer, editor, wellness seeker, and reiki practitioner. Her writing has appeared in Self, Health, Prevention, and over a dozen other publications.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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