Is your food ultra-processed? New database provides answers

Northeast Experts Reveal the Mystery of What We Eat.

In an article published Tuesday in Nature Food, Giulia Menichettisenior research fellow at the Northeastern Institute for Network Science, demonstrates that the concentrations of various nutrients in food follow a fixed pattern, and that the amount of any given nutrient in food follows a similar mathematical formula.

Inspired by these findings, her team determined that 73% of U.S. food is ultra-processed, which they attribute to a higher risk of various health problems. Their results, which showed the level of processing of more than 50,000 products sold in the United States, were published in an online database for public use.

Menichetti hopes this database will help fill gaps in the public’s knowledge of what they eat, in particular how food is actually processed.

“In fact, food and environment, not just genetics, are major determinants of our health,” he says. Giulia Menichetti, Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Network Science Institute. Photo by Matthew Moduno/Northeastern University

The study is part of a larger project called Foodco-founded by Albert-Laszlo Barabashi, Robert Gray Dodge, Professor of Network Science at Northeastern University and co-author of the study. Just as the Human Genome Project has done for human genetics, Foodome aims to map all the chemical components of the human diet in order to better understand how what we eat affects our health.

“In fact, food and environment, not just genetics, are major determinants of our health,” says Menichetti.

It’s good, she says. Unlike our genetic makeup, diet is something that people can control. But for this we need to know what is actually contained in our food. That’s why Menichetti’s team is mapping food’s “dark matter” — or unknown chemical constituents that go beyond what’s in the nutritional facts. This could help us understand what’s in what we eat and how processed it was before it hit our plates.

What does food processing mean and why is it important? Barabasi says processing applies to literally everything you do with food, like cutting vegetables.

“That in itself is not a problem,” he says. “The Problem in Ultraprocessing”.

He says that in order for food to be ultra-processed, it must be chemically altered. One example is some orange juices, which are labeled “natural” but are actually separated into three different chemicals before being stored separately and then remixed.

According to him, there may not be any indication on the packaging that this product is ultra-processed. The USDA only tracks and reports a very large number of nutrients, and the Food and Drug Administration requires companies to report only 12 nutrients. This is a problem because, the team argues, there is an association between ultra-processed foods and “a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, angina, high blood pressure, and biological age.”

man with glasses and red jacket

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science at Northeastern University. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Menichetti’s findings take a step towards a better understanding of all food chemicals. In her article, she notes that natural nutrients show common patterns that are well reflected in one equation.

According to Barabasi, the discovery is unprecedented. “The very existence of this formula was the most amazing thing,” he says. “No one even realized it was possible.”

Unfortunately, there are no biomarkers or chemical indicators for ultra-processed foods. But in two subsequent papers, both of which are under review, Menichetti shows that by showing what nutrient concentrations in natural, unprocessed foods should look like, the equation can still help us determine which foods in the US supply have been chemically attacked. modified and thus deviate from the nutrient ranges seen in natural ingredients.

“It offers a way to identify things that are outliers, things that don’t behave within the ranges seen in natural ingredients,” she says. “What we’re seeing is that ultra-processed food … basically behaves in ways that show extreme concentrations of many different nutrients.” For example, when onions are fried and sautéed, more than half of their nutrients change in concentration; these changes correlate with the level of processing.

Knowing this, the team set out to figure out how much of the entire U.S. food supply is being ultra-processed. Through machine learning, Menichetti and her co-authors — Babak Ravandi, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University, and Dariusz Mozaffarian of Tufts University — were able to do just that.

Their latest mission was to make this information public so that people can make more informed decisions about their diet. The third paper, which Meniketti co-authored with Ravandi and researcher Peter Mehler, features GroceryDB, a database containing information on more than 50,000 food items sold in major retail chains.

online version The database allows consumers to view food products for processing levels. Each product is assigned a score from 0 to 100 and users can compare different products. For example, Triscuits with a hint of sea salt have 89 points, original Cheez-Its have 57 points, and Ritz whole grain crackers have 29 points. Meanwhile, reduced-fat Wheat Thins scored 3.

For media inquiriesplease contact Marirose Sartoretto at or 617-373-5718.

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