Processed foods: contributions to nutrition


Both fresh and processed foods make up vital parts of the food supply. Processed food contributes to both food security (ensuring that sufficient food is available) and nutrition security (ensuring that food quality meets human nutrient needs). This ASN scientific statement focuses on one aspect of processed foods: their nutritional impacts. Specifically, this scientific statement 1) provides an introduction to how processed foods contribute to the health of populations, 2) analyzes the contribution of processed foods to “nutrients to encourage” and “constituents to limit” in the American diet as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans3) identifies the responsibilities of various stakeholders in improving the American diet, and 4) reviews emerging technologies and the research needed for a better understanding of the role of processed foods in a healthy diet. Analyses of the NHANES 2003–2008 show that processed foods provide both nutrients to encourage and constituents to limit as specified in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Of the nutrients to encourage, processed foods contributed 55% of dietary fiber, 48% of calcium, 43% of potassium, 34% of vitamin D, 64% of iron, 65% of folate, and 46% of vitamin B-12. Of the constituents to limit, processed foods contributed 57% of energy, 52% of saturated fat, 75% of added sugars, and 57% of sodium. Diets are more likely to meet food guidance recommendations if nutrient-dense foods, either processed or not, are selected. Nutrition and food science professionals, the food industry, and other stakeholders can help to improve the diets of Americans by providing a nutritious food supply that is safe, enjoyable, affordable, and sustainable by communicating effectively and accurately with each other and by working together to improve the overall knowledge of consumers.


Alex’s notes: What is “processed food”? For all the hate “processed food” receives from health authorities, I find it amazing the magnitude of ignorance that surrounds the term. Processing began in prehistory times with the cooking, drying, salting, and smoking of meats. As time passed and new foods were introduced into the human diet as well as new technology becoming available, food processing continued to become more complex – pasteurization and canning for example. Only within the last 100 years or so has these methods of preservation been conducted on an industrial scale. And this is where problems begin. Processed food is meaningless without context and nearly everything we eat is processed to some degree. So unless you rip apart a cow with your hands and teeth or eat the spinach straight out of the ground without first rinsing and cleaning it, you are eating processed food.

To clear the ambiguity and provide the needed context, most think of processed food as industrial creations of cereals, candies, etc. – what has been cleverly called “Franken-foods”. These are the foods that cause 1/6th of humans to be malnourished, and yet still allow for the prevalence of over-nutrition-related diseases such as obesity to surpass those of undernutrition. But unfortunately, fresh and local foods cannot meet all nutritional requirements of the world’s population. Food processing is necessary, but consumer research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) shows that 43% of consumers are concerned about some aspects of processed foods. The many issues currently being debated include views on nutritional quality, freshness, safety, origin (locally grown compared with grown elsewhere), healthfulness, sustainability, techniques used for raising them (organic compared with conventional and genetically modified organisms), and perceived ethical aspects of production.

A direct comparison of nutrients in processed compared with fresh foods would not be useful in an analysis of the role of processed foods in the American diet because of the diversity of foods and food products that exist. Instead, the review at hand evaluated the contribution of nutrients from processed foods in general with regard to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Notably, if enrichment and fortification (adding nutrients at higher amounts than naturally occur in the food) were not present, large percentages of the population would have had inadequate intakes of vitamins A, vitamin C, vitamins D, vitamin E, thiamin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and iron. This is especially startling when you consider that this is relative to the RDIs set by the government. The RDI for vitamin C, for example, could be met by simply eating one cup of broccoli or a kiwi fruit. Of course, rather than emphasize the need to promote more vegetable and fruit consumption, the review states that “adding nutrients to foods, has greatly benefitted nutrient intakes in the United States.” Yet, even when nutrients from enrichment and fortification were included, the only benefits for the percentages of the population with inadequate intakes were in vitamin A, vitamin D, folate, and iron.

The above is in addition to the fact that processed foods contribute 57% of the energy intake of a typical American, nearly 60% of the sodium intake, and 75% of the added sugars intake. Ironically, “minimally processed” foods which include products that such as washed and bagged vegetables, fruits, and nuts contribute negligible calories, sodium, or added sugars, and still provide 20% the total dietary fiber intake, and 25%-30% of the total calcium, potassium, and vitamin B12 intakes. But the review concludes that

“rather than limiting processed foods in the diet, it may be more productive to encourage the best available food options, namely, those that provide fewer constituents to limit and more nutrients to encourage for the calories consumed. Greater effort needs to be made to choose processed foods with lower amounts of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars while still consuming nutrients to encourage.”

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that the authors received research grants from the Dairy Research Institute, Nestle, and Tate & Lyle, in addition to some authors serving on the scientific advisory boards for ConAgra Foods Inc., McCormick Inc., Bay State Milling, and Nestle. They also own stock in ConAgra Foods Inc.

Regardless, some points made are an excellent suggestion. The authors acknowledge that labeling products with information about perceived risks, such as whether a product contains altered DNA (e.g., that it is genetically modified), allows the consumer to make a choice. In terms of the “promising” food processing opportunities, I really see no reason they cannot be beneficial to consumers. Remember, simply because something is processed does not mean it is unhealthy or unbeneficial. For instance, using stevia as a replacement for sugar, or making fried potatoes without oil via dynamic radiant frying, which uses a high-heat flux to provide the appearance, taste, and texture of fried food without using additional oil. Additionally, foods may be fortified with components that enhance gut health – something already seen with cultured dairy products.

Overall, the authors conclude that processed foods are nutritionally important to American diets by providing both food and nutrition security. There is no doubt that if people would eat more “real” rather than “processed” foods, greater health benefits would be seen, but the conclusion is not incorrect. I believe food processing holds great potential and simple breakthroughs that appeal to individuals such as those found in the Super Human Nation make food processing more compatible with a healthy lifestyle. Although these types of processed foods make up an extremely small proportion of the processed foods that exist, they are growing rapidly and I for one look forward to seeing the result.


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