This morning, while tidying up my office, I found an open box of packaged coconut and chocolate cookies that I'd bought sometime last year. The "use by" date had come and gone more than eight months ago. Curious, I took a small bite. They still tasted pretty darn good.
A closer look at the ingredient list revealed some things I've certainly never baked with, including carrageenan and sorbitan tristearate, additives used to do things like thicken, emulsify and preserve the flavor and enhance the texture of food.
Welcome to the world of ultra-processed foods – edible products made from manufactured ingredients that have been extracted from foods, processed, then reassembled to create shelf-stable, tasty and convenient meals.
"These are foods that are industrial creations," says Allison Sylvetsky, an associate professor in the department of exercise and nutrition at the George Washington Milken Institute School of Public Health.
The category includes everything from cookies and sodas to jarred sauces, cereals, packaged breads and frozen meals, even ice creams. You might not realize you're eating one, but look close and you'll see many ingredients you wouldn't find in your kitchen – think bulking agents, hydrolyzed protein isolates, color stabilizers, humectants.
They dominate the food supply. And a large and growing body of evidence has consistently linked overconsumption of ultra-processed foods to poor health outcomes.