The truth about processed food

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If you’ve been paying attention to recent conversations about processed and ultra-processed food in main stream media, you might think processed food is dangerous. Headlines like “Eating ultra-processed foods linked to risk of early death” or “Consuming ultra-processed foods can shave years off your life,” would make anyone take pause. But are they accurate? And why is there so much confusion about processed foods?

For most of us, food has an intrinsic, emotional value—tied to beliefs, traditions, and a desire to maintain optimal health and wellness. This coupled with there being so much conflicting information, whether it’s through media, social media, or in-person interactions, can make it challenging to make well-informed decisions about what to eat.

What is processed food really?

Processed foods are simply defined as something that’s been altered from its original state. That means peanut butter, bread, canned tomatoes, frozen fruit, cut vegetables, yogurt, and canned tuna are all considered processed foods. Additionally, heating, pasteurizing, canning, fermenting, and drying are all considered forms of processing. Some definitions can even include refrigeration. Cooking at home is itself a form of processing. In fact, most foods in the modern diet are processed. And that’s a good thing.

In most cases, food processing ensures food safety and nutrition. For example, milk has been pasteurized for centuries to help keep it safe by reducing its bacterial load, killing pathogenic bacteria (like e-coli), and stopping foodborne illnesses. And beyond that, fortifying foods, which can be defined as strengthening and improving, leads to enhanced nutritional value. This is done when milk is fortified with vitamin D, salt is fortified with iodine, or flour is enriched with vitamins and minerals.  

Simplifying a Complex Issue.

Processed foods can be, and often are, misunderstood. There are many different types of processed food and some can be unhealthy, especially when made with high amounts of sugar, salt, or fats. But many are healthy and offer a lot of nutritional value as well as greater accessibility to many who need it most. For example, those who live in impoverished communities.

So why the confusion? Classification systems, who by design, try to simplify criteria to help make things more easily understood, can sometimes go too far and oversimplify our complex, global food system. Take for example powdered milk, an ultra-processed food. It contains a significant source of nutrients for those who can’t obtain or simply can’t afford fresh milk. Additionally, developed countries rely on processed foods to fight nutrient deficiencies. For example, rice fortification improving our consumption of essential vitamins and minerals. A report using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2006 indicated that processed foods helped Americans to meet dietary recommendations.

Are good intentions misleading consumers?

However well-intentioned, classification systems and subsequent assertions have become particularly troublesome in recent years because they often make a direct correlation with ultra-processed food being bad for you.

Recommendations from the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services on how to make healthy food and beverage choices are based on data that links nutrient intake with the prevention of noncommunicable chronic diseases. But this is not how some classification systems, for example NOVA, specify the health benefits of ultra-processed food. In the case of NOVA, ultra-processed is not based on nutrient intake but rather on the degree of processing.

The most recent definition of ultra-processed foods, according to the NOVA food classification system states, “Industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives.” The assumption that a food product with five or more ingredients is somehow unhealthy and even dangerous is arbitrary and often untrue. Not to mention that there are many processed foods that are not high in added sugars, salts, and fats.

Clarifying classification and communication.

Processed and ultra-processed foods are a valuable part of the modern diet that can often provide safe food and a significant amount of nutrients for the global population. Classification systems, although well-intentioned, don’t tell the whole story and unfortunately result in misunderstanding consumers.

As we start to see governmental bodies looking to classification systems to inform policy, the importance of understanding what classifies food as processed or ultra-processed, as well as healthy versus unhealthy, becomes critical.  It’s time that misleading classification systems like NOVA be re-examined to help consumers and their policy makers make more informed choices and policy decisions

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