On Nutrition: Sugar-phoria

I wish everyone could have the same airport experience we get each time we fly out of our hometown (population 8,000). Mind you, we only have two flights a day and the plane only seats nine people. So the service we get is first-class.

Recently, when we arrived for our early morning flight, we got our usual friendly greeting from TSA agents.

“So, where are you headed today?”

After we checked in for our flight (which takes about one minute), the young lady behind the counter handed us paper boarding passes and invited us to “help yourself to coffee and cookies” on a small table a few steps away.

This day, we flew through security with the other five people on our flight only to be informed that we would be delayed about a half-hour. I suspect the pilot overslept.

As we were released back into the waiting room, I casually remarked to one agent, “I wish I hadn’t tossed my coffee cup so soon.”

A few minutes later, he came over and handed me a cup and beamed, “I made you an espresso.”

All this small town charm faded when we arrived at the Denver airport and scurried down the concourse for our connecting flight. That was when my dietitian brain came to attention.

I’d just been reading a 2023 article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on how the overconsumption of ultra processed foods (handily abbreviated UPFs) is often the underpinning of unhealthy diets. And that these foods are a “significant proportion” of the calories we Americans eat.

What are ultra-processed foods? Basically, they are the ones that bear little resemblance to their original state. And often during processing, nutrients are lost and often replaced with salt, sugar and fat.

To be clear, not all processed foods are ultra-processed, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. In fact, any food that is washed, sliced, frozen, dried or packaged or changed in any way from its original state is considered “processed.”

And there’s often a big difference, according to nutrition experts, between minimally and ultra-processed foods. Some packaged foods are actually quite healthy. Frozen vegetables or canned fruit, for example, are processed at their peak freshness and ripeness to lock in nutritional quality. Added ingredients aren’t all bad either. Spices add flavor and other ingredients help preserve the product from harmful organisms. And it would fairly difficult to buy fresh meat, poultry or blueberries if they weren’t packaged.

We do rely on heavily processed foods at times though … such as when traveling through an airport. Heavily processed foods include sugar-laden snacks and beverages and convenience items that easily pop into a microwave oven.

Case in point. During our layover in the Denver airport, I spotted a snack shoppe named “Sugarphoria.” My thoughts exactly.

Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to [email protected].