Can Processed Food Be Good For You- A Debate on Whole vs. Processed Foods

By Sarah Gold

The whole-foods movement is moving full speed ahead. According to a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, 43% of Americans have negative perceptions of processed foods and only 61% of consumers believe there is a benefit to modern food processing. Many dietitians, health professionals, and scientists have been pushing whole foods for years, instructing consumers that processed food = bad and whole foods = good.  Americans are told to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, but is it really possible to do so and get all of the nutrients one needs? Are all processed foods created equal? Can we lump everything that doesn’t come straight from the ground, a tree, or bush into one category?

Last week, I attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) — formerly known as the American Dietetic Association– Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) and sat in on a discussion about the role of processed foods in Americans’ diets. As a whole-foods advocate, the debate certainly gave me something to think about.

What is a processed food?

Here is a simple definition: processing is any deliberate change that occurs to a food before consumption. The challenge with this definition is that it encompasses any level of processing from pasteurization, freezing, and canning to creating an entire meal from a mixture of lab-created ingredients. In reality, there is a continuum of processed foods, which is an important distinction to make.

In an attempt to unbundle all processed foods, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently developed a scale defining different levels of processing. Researchers then applied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to understand which types of processed foods Americans are eating and what nutrients they derive from these foods.

IFIC defines 5 levels of processing:

  1. Minimally processed: bagged salads, roasted nuts, milk, chicken and beef
  2. Foods processed for preservation and freshness: canned tuna, frozen fruits, milk, and 100% juice
  3. Combined foods: tomato sauce, spice mixes, and dressings
  4. Ready-to-eat  (RTE) foods: cereal, flavored oatmeal, nut butters, cheese, carbonated beverages, granola, lunchmeats, candy, and bread
  5. Foods packaged to stay fresh: prepared deli foods, and frozen meals

What nutrients do processed foods contribute to the American Diet?

Though consumers have negative perceptions of processed foods, they still eat an abundance of them.  Why the disconnect?

“This is a very confusing aspect of the debate,” says Victor Fulgoni III, PhD of Nutrition impact and speaker at the FNCE session.  “Some of the discontent is fueled by some that want only local and fresh foods to be consumed. While this is a very laudable goal it is just not possible for most of Americans for either time or economic constraints,” adds Fulgoni.

Sadly, only about 300 calories per day come from minimally processed foods in the American diet, according to the data presented by Fulgoni at FNCE. Not surprisingly ready-to-eat (RTE) foods make up the largest portion of calories consumed (about 600 calories) and the top RTE foods consumed include soda, candy, potato chips, and juice drinks. This did not include food eaten at restaurants.

Processed foods contribute more dietary saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than minimally processed foods. However, they also provide the largest source of fiber, B vitamins, folate, iron, and potassium for many Americans. According to the study, most American’s would not meet the daily recommendations for essential vitamins and minerals without processed foods.

Do processed foods have a place in the Americans diet?

“How many of you have gone out to a wheat field, picked a grain of wheat and eaten it?” Fulgoni asked at the discussion. Though extreme, this question is a reminder that food processing is a necessary step to make foods accessible, palatable, and convenient.

Derek Yach, Senior Vice President of Global Health Policy at PepsiCo and former Executive Director of Noncommunicible Diseases and Mental Health at the World Health Organization, recently published an article in the Huffington Post on food access and availability. He noted that if everyone followed the dietary guidelines and filled half their plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, there wouldn’t be enough produce to go around. To address poor nutrition he suggests that food manufacturers focus on “incorporating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds into food products and maintaining their nutritional value during manufacturing, packaging, and distribution.”

It’s unrealistic to think that everyone in America can eat fresh and local food year round. In many parts of the country, the dead of winter means canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables, which are processed foods. Foods like canned tuna and beans; some cereals; whole-wheat pasta and tomato sauce; and nut butters are nutritious options for many people looking for convenience.

The challenge lies in shifting the public’s choices of processed foods, particularly in the RTE category.  Nutrition and agriculture professionals need to find innovative ways to educate consumers about which processed foods to choose. Fulgoni suggests a need to, “develop a way to operatialize the term nutrient density, especially for foods that contain both nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit.” It’s unrealistic to eliminate all processed foods from most people’s diets, but encouraging consumers to choose the granola bar over the candy bar can be feasible.

Another solution is to improve accessibility of healthier processed foods, particularly in places where whole foods are not readily available. This is already happening.  Elementary schools are replacing chips and candy in the vending machines with trail mix and granola. And if elementary schools can do it, shouldn’t the only school of nutrition in the country provide granola bars and yogurt instead of 600-calorie muffins and ramen noodles? Food companies are prioritizing the “closer-to-the-whole” movement and are developing products based on whole ingredients. Healthful RTE foods exist.

It’s also important to find a better balance between the nutrients to encourage and the nutrients to reduce. As food and beverage companies prioritize health and wellness, nutrition professionals should encourage them to develop new foods that are lower in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat but also include the vitamins and minerals we need. A reduced fat twinkie fortified with fiber and vitamins is not the answer. But, demonizing all processed foods is also not productive.  Instead, finding new ways to process foods such as whole grains into more convenient, shelf-stable, and accessible forms, while retaining nutritional value is a better use of our time.

 Sarah is a second year student completing a dual degree in Nutrition Communication and the Didactic Program in Dietetics. When not writing for school, the Sprout, or her internship, Sarah enjoys running, teaching spin, and testing out new recipes to share with friends and family! Read more from Sarah at her personal blog: www.foodandfitnessfriend.com

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