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American Workers May Be Eating Their Way To Poor Productivity

American Workers May Be Eating Their Way To Poor Productivity

70% of U.S. workers say their employers make ultra-processed foods readily available despite their links to decreased cognitive function and energy levels, a new report found

One in six U.S. employees considers themselves addicted to ultra-processed food, according to new research from global healthy eating platform Lifesum.

Ultra-processed foods, or UPFs—a term coined by Carlos Monteiro, a researcher and nutrition and public health professor—are defined as foods created from extracted substances, such as starches, fats, hydrogenated fats, and added sugars. They may contain additives like artificial colors, flavors and stabilizers and typically take the form of packaged baked goods, sugar-based cereals, snacks and ready meals.

Unsurprisingly, such foods can be harmful to overall health. One study published in the BMJ in February found that “greater exposure” to ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of cardiometabolic, mental disorders and mortality outcomes. The study also found that ultra-processed foods represent more than half of all calories in the U.S. diet and contribute nearly 90% of all added sugars. Moreover, ultra-processed foods can have addictive properties, research suggests

Lifesum’s survey of 5,000 employees showed the widespread ingestion of ultra-processed foods at work, revealing that 85.4% of people consume them at least once a week, and 20.5% consume them daily. Survey respondents reported convenience, stress and time constraints as the main drivers for consuming ultra-processed foods at work. 

The Potential Dangers of UPFs

Opting for ultra-processed food at work has shown negative impacts on mood and performance, with 74.5% of respondents reporting poor mood regulation, low energy levels (78.6%) and reduced cognitive function (62.3%)

Despite their detrimental effects on performance, 70.6% of employees report that their employers make ultra-processed foods readily available in the workplace.

According to “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, roughly 60% of the food Americans eat is now considered ultra-processed and carefully designed to create a “mouthfeel”—such as the satisfying crunch of a salty potato chip.

“Once you start looking at the label of your food and you see all kinds of chemical names and emulsifiers that you would not have in your kitchen, you may want to think twice about eating that food,” Schlosser told NPR last month ahead of his new documentary, “Food, Inc. 2.”

“We’re basically guinea pigs for a form of industrialized food that nobody has ever eaten before,” he continued.

Tips for Boosting Employee Nutrition

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As Lifesum’s research highlights, ultra-processed food can have a profound effect on employee health and performance.

“Introducing informative warning labels on specific ultra-processed foods can empower individuals to make more conscious dietary decisions,” Lifesum lead nutritionist Signe Svanfeldt suggested. “Additionally, employers can foster healthier workplace environments by implementing strategies like nutrition education, promoting access to healthier foods, and offering support for dietary improvements.”

Svanfeldt suggests several actionable items to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as cooking with fresh ingredients like fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, reading nutrition labels and avoiding products with long lists of unrecognizable ingredients, planning meals ahead of time, replacing processed snacks with nuts, fresh fruit or yogurt, and opting for natural sweeteners such as raw honey or dates.

Employers can also do their part, with Svanfeldt advising them to offer healthy snacks such as fresh fruit in the office kitchen or vending machines, host nutrition workshops, encourage meal prep or start a meal-sharing program and opt for catering that uses fresh and minimally processed ingredients.

As many consumers, particularly Gen Z and Millennials, have begun to reject ultra-processed foods in favor of more healthful, whole-food options in their pursuit of well-being and longevity, some major food manufacturers, such as Nestlé, are already toiling away in the lab. The food and drink giant is leveraging January AI’s technology to analyze the reactions of diverse populations (such as those with diabetes or prediabetes) to different foods and reformulate products to improve the glycemic response, taste and texture.

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