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Virginia Tech study will track ultra-processed food's impact on the human body

A team at Virginia Tech prepares for its 2-year study on ultra-processed foods
Fralin Biomedical Lab
A team at Virginia Tech prepares for its 2-year study on ultra-processed foods

There’s a line of thought that ‘ultra-processed’ foods, with lots of manufactured ingredients, are bad for us. A team of investigators wants to take at least a couple of years to find out why.

Those types of foods are generally found in ‘crinkly packages’ in the middle aisles of the grocery store – like chips, sweetened breakfast cereal, and soft drinks.

An assistant professor at Virginia Tech says they make up an average of 58% of all U.S. daily calorie intake.

Alex DiFeliceantonio is with the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

"What is it in our bodies and brains that make changing what we eat difficult?," she said. "Also, what it is in the foods and in our food environment that making us make the decisions that we might not particularly want to make?"

Three grants from the National Institutes of Health, totaling $1.3 million over two years, will fund the work. The team is looking for 32 volunteers for control trials, and starts with 18-to-25 year olds. The study will also be run on a "normal" American population, with low physical activity, and not athletes.

DiFeliceantonio says while one group might eat an unflavored yogurt with honey and nuts, the other might have one with extra ingredients, along with a bowl of cereal. The subjects will undergo an fMRI as well (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that deals with the brain's functional activity.

"So they spend two weeks on the minimally processed diet, they get a four week washout, which just means to go back to their regular eating behavior, and hopefully any effect of the diet would 'wash out' and disappear," she explains. "And then they go two weeks on the other diet, so each person serves as their own control, so you don't need quite as many people, but they spend more time in the study."

The first of the grants is funding work by DiFeliceantonio and co-principal investigator and professor Brenda Davy. The work also involves faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and a professor in molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University.

The team will see how each diet impacts cognitive behavior. After looking at those findings, they’ll move onto testing middle-aged adults, ages 50 to 65.

DiFeliceantonio said it's possible data collection could extend beyond the grant's two years, meaning the team will have to apply for more funding.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.