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How ultra-processed food impairs nutrient absorption

Ultra processed foods replace gut-supporting nutrients with gut-damaging compounds. Find out how they affect nutrient absorption.

In the inner aisles of the grocery store, it’s Invasion of the Nutrient Snatchers. They look like food, they taste like food, but they’re nefarious imposters, made in a lab to delight our tastes while disrupting our microbiomes to robbing our bodies of nutrients. Ultra-processed foods strip out the good nutrients and replace them with bad. Instead of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, ultra-processed foods are filled with sugar, salt, inflammatory fats, and artificial additives. Eating a diet high in ultra processed foods turns you into a husk by preventing your body from absorbing nutrients, including:

  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Chromium
  • Vitamin C
  • B vitamins

In this article, we’ll explain how ultra processed foods deplete vitamins and minerals by replacing naturally occurring compounds that support nutrient absorption with cheap ingredients that impair it.

Ultra-processing giveth detrimental additives that disrupt digestion

Ultra-processed foods contain massive amounts of salt

In the excessive amounts added to ultra processed foods to make up for lack of inherent flavor in its primary components (industrial oils and refined grains), salt interferes with absorption of minerals calcium, magnesium, and zinc by competing for absorption. It’s further complicated when the kidneys, having to excrete all this extra sodium, wind up moving minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium out with it.

Excessive salt can also alter gut microbiome composition, replacing helpful bacteria with the harmful kind for the terrifying sequel: Invasion of the Bacteria Snatchers. Too much salt can also deplete your body of the most vital nutrient of all: water. Without water, our organs turn to raisins. Even moderate dehydration has detrimental effects on nutrition by reducing production of digestive enzymes. And, by reducing blood flow to the intestines, dehydration prevents nutrients from traveling out of the gut and into the rest of the body.

Ultra-processed foods are full of sugar

By the amounts of sugar added to many packaged foods, you could assume these products are as bland as Soylent Red. If this assumption, and dystopian sci-fi books, are to be believed, you need sugar — or ground up people — to make a palatable food-like substance in a lab. Unfortunately, sugar has no nutritional value and, in excess, it reduces bacteria diversity needed for healthy digestion and increases gut inflammation, both of which can interfere with nutrient absorption.

Too much added sugar can prevent nutrient transporters from moving nutrients (like Vitamin C and amino acids) from the gut to the bloodstream for absorption. The spike in insulin after heavy sugar consumption is partially responsible for this disruption. With elevated sugar in the blood, insulin does what it has to do to get that glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells by stimulating production of glucose transporters at the expense of others. Minerals like iron and zinc that share glucose transporters are absorbed in excess while magnesium and calcium are left without their transport proteins and are excreted from the body. Elevated insulin may also slow food movement through the gut.

Ultra processed foods contain artificial additives

Shrouded in multi-syllabic, hard-to-pronounce names deep on the nutrition facts label, artificial flavors are the ingredients that fool us into thinking these laboratory creations are food. They are a Trojan horse, giving the flashy gift of flavor, color, and texture while attacking the microbiota, lining, and pathways linking the gut to the brain. When it comes to artificial sweeteners, it’s not no-calorie, no-foul. They can deplete the gut bacteria that supports nutrient absorption while stimulating growth of damaging bacteria like an invasive weed strangling the crops in a garden. Their reduction of enzymes like lactase can prevent breakdown of dairy products, interfering with absorption of calcium and Vitamin D.

Aspartame has been shown to increase insulin secretion, causing the same damage as excess sugar while saccharin and sucralose can interfere with calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Emulsifiers, which blend the naturally repellant fat and water, and preservatives have been shown to change the composition of the gut microbiome.

Titanium dioxide — a whitening compound added to numerous processed foods like chowders, quesos, and pudding snacks that watchdog groups have recently urged us to avoid — can alter gut bacterial composition and cause inflammation. Recent studies on humans and mice suggest synthetic food dyes — commonly added to processed foods because our eyes can be as big as our stomachs — damage the digestive system.

Allura Red — used in candies, soft drinks, cereals, and more — caused IBS and colitis in a recent mice study. These conditions prevent normal absorption of several nutrients, including vitamins A, B9 (folate), B12, D, and K, as well as minerals calcium, iron, selenium, and zinc.

Excessive sugar, salt, and artificial additives together cause more absorption problems

Ultra-processed foods increase free radical production while offering no antioxidants to neutralize them. These unstable molecules alter gut microbiota, which impairs digestion and extraction of nutrients. Not content with their mayhem, they proceed to damage membranes of gut cells, preventing them from absorbing nutrients, and inflame the nutrient transport system. Now, free radicals are a natural part of metabolism.

Healthy activities like exercise create them. That’s why we have our antioxidant system as a built-in defense. Excessive free radical production, like the kind resulting from heavy consumption of ultra-processed foods, requires extra antioxidant consumption from food. Ultra-processed foods, of course, offer none of that. In fact, the industrial processing strip and added preservatives strip away those beneficial nutrients along with a whole lot more.

Ultra-processing taketh away nutrients that support digestion
Ultra-processed foods are low in fiber

During extensive refinement to enhance palatability and shelf life, much of the fiber is removed from fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains used in ultra processed foods. And that’s unfortunate because fiber is critical for digestion, a diverse microbiome, and efficient nutrient absorption. Fiber also slows glucose absorption, which minimizes the insulin spike that interferes with vitamin and mineral absorption.

Ultra-processed foods are low in vitamins that help the gut

A healthy gut absorbs more vitamins and vitamins are needed for a healthy gut. Ultra processing strips out vitamins and minerals, which your gut requires for digestion. Heavy reliance on ultra processed foods creates a vicious circle.

Why are ultra-processed foods ubiquitous when they impair nutrient absorption

These packaged foods taste great, cost little, and can outlast the zombie apocalypse. While they may save your life if you’re stuck for months in a bomb shelter, eschewing available whole, unprocessed and minimally processed foods for these replicants can prevent your body from absorbing the vitamins and minerals it needs to keep you from becoming as hollow as they are.