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Could This Be the New “Silent Killer?”

I hate walking into the grocery store.

Most of the shelves are nothing but row after row of canned, processed, packaged, sweetened, and genetically modified foods filled with all sorts of things your body doesn’t know what to do with.

These foods consist of sugars, fats, oils, sodium and all sorts of additives guaranteed to fatten you up while leaving you sick, weak and hungry. You’ve got your flavor enhancers, bulking agents, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, color stabilizers, anti-caking agents, thickening agents and more.

It’s no wonder people find it so hard to eat a healthy diet these days!

And it’s not just what’s going on in the stores. If you take a look at the coupons and ads that come in the mail, appear in the newspaper and show up online, you’ll see that the large majority of space promotes unhealthy foods like cookies, cereals, chips, breads, desserts and sugar-laden drinks.

These tactics are literally guiding Americans toward unhealthy food choices. And I’m convinced these foods, known as ultra-processed foods, are at the head of the pack when it comes to today’s health crisis; including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, inflammatory conditions, cancer and mental health disorders.

Does that make these foods the new “silent killer?”

Ultra-Processed Foods: As Bad as High Blood Pressure or Tobacco Use

According a new study out of Florida Atlantic University, nearly 60% of the average adult diet now contains hundreds of “new” ingredients that have never previously been introduced to the human body. 

The study authors pose the idea that these ultra-processed foods – which are stripped of healthy ingredients while, at the same time, introducing foreign ingredients – are dangerous to human health. They even go so far as to suggest that these foods (if you can call them that) may be the new “silent killer,” in much the same way as unrecognized high blood pressure was in the past.

The research team even compares ultra-processed foods to tobacco use. And not just because of similar health outcomes (heart disease, cancer, etc.) It turns out that these new foods are highly addictive – just as addictive as cigarettes.

These foods trigger compulsive use. They cause brain changes that alter mood and reinforce addictive behavior. And they trigger strong urges and cravings.

That being said, it took decades for officials to recognize the dangers of tobacco and actually started making efforts to discourage the use of it.

How many decades will it take before they take similar efforts to dissuade people from choosing ultra-processed foods?

Not All Ultra-Processed Foods are Ultra-Obvious

Let me be clear on one thing. Ultra-processed foods are not “real” food.

They are made out of chemicals (emulsifiers; bulking agents) and food substances (hydrolyzed proteins; dextrose) that you will never find in a kitchen… anywhere! This, alone, makes them very dangerous to the human body.

Some ultra-processed foods are obvious. You already know things like white bread, cake, candy, cookies, chips, ice cream, pizza, hot dogs and other “junk food” are over processed. And you probably avoid them for the most part.

But there are others that may not be as clear cut. For example, do you snack on energy bars? How often do you enjoy a diet soda… a fruit drink… or an energy drink?

When is the last time you ate canned or dehydrated soups? Pasta or instant noodles? Prepared meat, fish, vegetable or cheese dishes? Cured meat? Chicken nuggets? Canned or packaged sauces? Margarine or other spreads?

There is a simple key to identifying ultra-processed foods. On the ingredient list, you’ll find items that aren’t normally used when preparing food. If five or more of the items listed aren’t “food,” it’s considered ultra-processed.

So let’s say you grab a packet of dehydrated vegetable soup. Veggies will likely be the first to appear on the ingredient list. But right after that, you’ll see a lot of additives like corn syrup, yeast extract, sodium citrate, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate and hydrolyzed vegetable protein.

You would never see those ingredients in a recipe for vegetable soup!

The fewer the ingredients on the list, and the more ingredients you actually recognize as food, the better off you will be!

And remember, you can never go wrong by choosing whole, organic, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. These natural foods are more slowly digested and absorbed by your body with no negative effects on your weight, blood sugar, cardiovascular health or other body systems.


Sherling DH, Hennekens CH, Ferris AH. Newest Updates to Health Providers on the Hazards of Ultra-Processed Foods and Proposed Solutions. Am J Med. 2024 Feb 10:S0002-9343(24)00069-X.

Could ultra-processed foods be the new ‘silent’ killer? Florida Atlantic University. News Release. Feb 2024.

Gearhardt AN, DiFeliceantonio AG. Highly processed foods can be considered addictive substances based on established scientific criteria. Addiction. 2023 Apr;118(4):589-598.

Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac JC, Louzada ML, Rauber F, Khandpur N, Cediel G, Neri D, Martinez-Steele E, Baraldi LG, Jaime PC. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019 Apr;22(5):936-941.