‘Avoid processed food, especially ultra-processed foods’ is oft spouted nutrition advice. Many health professionals make such admonitions because they believe that processed foods cause our current ‘diabesity’ epidemic. I, along with other nutritionists, share grave concerns about rising rates of obesity and its complications. Distressingly, 67% of us are overweight; 42% are obese; and 9% morbidly obese. Sadly, obesity is one factor that increases risk of CoVID-19.
Last June, while I was posting a series on ultra-processed foods, a former undergraduate student emailed me that there was a speaker at IFT who was talking about the same topic. That speaker was Dr. Julie Jones. I contacted her, we discussed our concerns about NOVA classification of foods and ingredients, and we exchanged copies of books we had written. I asked her if she would be willing to write a commentary on the subject, but she was appearing in various locations in the country and around the world to be able to provide me with an article. Recently, with a little more time on her hands, she sent me this commentary, and I am happy to post it.
To say that processed foods causes obesity, a disease with multiple causes, is simplistic at best. Daily diets of mind-blowingly large entrees, intakes of few fruits and vegetables, and mindless snacking on ‘doodles, ding dongs, doughnuts’ accompanied by ‘megadrinks’ pave the road to obesity and chronic disease. It is no wonder that dietary guidance the world over advocates that these high-calorie, nutritionally anemic, sugar- and fat- laden foods, many of them processed, be chosen infrequently.
Advice to ‘avoid processed foods’ correctly impugns foods, which contribute few nutrients, however it also includes, and as a result maligns, nutritious foods – canned, dried and frozen fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish and packaged breads and breakfast cereals. National surveys document that consumers have internalized the inferiority of these foods. Surveys show that over 80% agree that canned foods are less nutritious than fresh. Under 50% of Americans believe that processed foods count toward servings recommended by dietary guidance in USDA’s MyPlate. Many think that fresh is safer than processed, despite data showing many foodborne disease outbreaks are due to fresh produce. Whereas, under 5 total cases per year are due to canned food, and those are mostly from improperly home-canned foods.
Not only does such advice create negative attitudes about processed foods, it does not give clear advice about foods to choose and to avoid since many definitions of processed foods exist. USDA defines them as raw agricultural products undergoing any treatment, including washing or chopping. Some concerned about processed foods have proposed NOVA (not an acronym), a system which professes to categorize foods based on degree of processing. In reality, it is based on ingredients. While ultra-processed foods in NOVA include the usual suspects – chips, sodas, cookies and candy, but it also includes foods such as whole wheat bread, fortified breakfast cereals (even those low in added sugar), and infant formula. Any food containing additives including vitamins and minerals or 5 or more ingredients is ‘ultra-processed’. This example with nuts shows how NOVA classes might confuse: unsalted, roasted nuts are ‘minimally processed;’ those nuts with salt are ‘processed’ and those with salt, chili, siracha and natural flavors are ‘ultra-processed.’
Choices do matter, and surveys document our failure to choose fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Only 3-8% of the population eats according to recommended patterns such as MyPlate or NIH’s DASH. Especially for those on tight budgets, consumers were more likely to meet recommended intakes for fruits, vegetables, and fish when canned, packaged and frozen foods were selected. Interestingly, diets of those with higher intakes of these processed foods, showed no differences in overall salt intakes or body weight indicating that weight is not related to intakes of these foods.
NOVA proponents advocate cooking, and so do I, as it has many benefits and joys. However, unless we change our food choices, cooking will not us instantly thinner or healthier. Only if advice to ‘avoid processed foods’ motivates right-sizing of portions and changing of choices from carrot cake to carrots, will it have any impact. Simply put, it’s the nutrients and calories that foods deliver, not degree of processing, that matters.
This message is relevant to us during CoVID-19, we shelter-in-place and shop less frequently as because we need reassurance that foods from all levels of processing, including staples in our pantries, can be combined to make healthy diets. Those consumers facing challenges of confinement and income disruption need confidence in the nutrient quality of these economical foods. Creative use of these foods permits us hearkening back to comfort foods while challenging us to prepare these staple foods exciting and celebratory ways. While advice to ‘avoid processed foods’ makes a good ‘sound bite,’ it is not sound bite advice. Well-constructed nutrition advice gives a template of foods to choose (and amounts required) as well as clearly delineates foods to limit for optimal health and well-being. Reframing attitudes regarding staple processed foods means a recognition their importance in enabling us to shop less, to practice social distancing, and to sustain us. Thus, I have come to praise processed foods, not to bury them.
Julie Jones, a Certified Nutrition Scientist and Certified Food Scientist, is currently a profession emerita from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. She received her BS from Iowa State University (ISU) and her PhD from the University of Minnesota. She taught at for over 40 years and was also an adjunct at the University of Minnesota. She was twice named as St. Catherine’s outstanding professor and was awarded the Myser Award by the alumnae as a “professor who made a difference in people’s lives.” She also received the Alumni Impact Award from the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at ISU at her 50th Homecoming. She has written many papers and speaks for many professional and consumer organizations. She was active in many organizations and was president of American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI). She has received numerous awards and is a fellow of the IFT, AACCI and ICC.
Next week: How will CoVID-19 affect transit trips to get processed food? by Jonathan Katz
7 thoughts on “In Praise of Processed Foods -CoVID-19 by Julie Jones”
I’m all for keeping the conversation going. So let’s start with carrot cakes.
From a nutrient perspective, the numbers are roughly equal. Both home baked and commercially packaged cakes are calorie dense 4.0 kcal per gram and both high fat & sugar, low fiber & protein. Not even remotely close to heathy as defined by nutrient content.
Comparing ingredient lists. A baked at home or bakery version has a simple, straightforward ingredient list. The other versions, which contain preservatives, dough conditioners, and what ever else is required to keep the product shelf stable and safe over time, would be classified as ultra-processed. Do those additives make the product unhealthy? My zealous colleagues bang on my head for suggesting it may be too soon to know for sure, but I remain neutral. It took many decades and missteps before the canning process we accept today as safe could be perfected.
Changing dietary patterns. What is the packaged carrot cake replacing? Carrot cakes are ubiquitous in newsstands and concession stands. When you’re pressed for time and running late, grabbing a quick 400 calories works. But I’m not convinced that we completely understand the impact when ready to eat convenient packaged products replace established dietary patterns based on freshly prepared dishes and meals on a daily basis.
Excellent points! You have clearly defined the issue between those who believe in NOVA and those who are pushing back on the concept of ultra-processed foods much better than I have. It is all about the additives. I appreciate your neutrality on the issue of additives, but here is my response to your zealous colleagues.
How does a consumer know that the carrot cake from the local bakery doesn’t contain the preservatives, dough conditioners, and whatever else is needed to keep the cake fresh and safe? I don’t know whether the bakery is required to provide an ingredient statement, but I suspect that they are required to provide an ingredient statement for an entire cake but not for a slice sold separately. Supermarkets in Florida provide these statements on the sticker that gets torn apart when the cake box is opened. Most people ignore the list of ingredients, but it is anything but simple and straightforward.
Buy a slice of carrot cake in a restaurant, and it has probably been processed at a plant hundreds of miles away, mechanically sliced into servings, frozen with partitions between each slice, shipped to the individual store, kept in the freezer until about 24 hours before serving time, and served to the patron at about $5.00 or more per slice. Those slices not sold that evening are probably thrown out with the trash at closing time. No ingredient statement; no knowledge what ingredients were used. How do I know this? Because some of my former students worked at a cake bakery plant in Atlanta that shipped their products to popular chain restaurants across the country. One of them brought in samples when he guest lectured in my class. I was the most popular professor on campus that day. I don’t believe the cleaning staff ever got the icing stains out of the carpet until the whole classroom was renovated a few years later!
The point is that there is a double standard between a packaged food and one that is not packaged. The former has an ingredient statement that is clearly visible and hard to ignore. The latter is just as likely to contain additives and meet the criterion for ultra-processed, but the ingredient statement is not nearly as prominent. The standard also applies to ingredients for that home baked cake. I suspect that you are very selective in choosing your ingredients when you buy them, but many of these simple and straightforward ingredients that are available in the local supermarket have ingredients of their own that include the additives that are shunned by those who avoid ultra-processed foods.
But back to the additives themselves. Who must bear the burden of proof that they are either safe or unsafe? The manufacturer? Yes, they must only use ingredients approved by the government. The federal government through FDA? Yes, each new additive must go through a rigorous animal testing protocol taking years to complete before being approved. Other additives must have been shown to be in common use over a long period of time prior to 1958. Michael Pollan or NOVA? No, all they need to do is declare that some of these additives may not be safe and the best bet is to avoid any packaged item that contains five or more ingredients. There is no differentiation—all additives are deemed equally suspect. I could be wrong, but I suspect that your home-baked carrot cake contains more than five ingredients, particularly if you list the sub-ingredients in the ingredients you use to bake the cake as required for any packaged food.
To sum up, the presence or absence of ingredients in an ultra-processed food is much more complicated than the arbitrary NOVA classification scheme. It is much easier to demonstrate something is unsafe than something is safe. Where do we go from here?
Good dialogue. I look forward to your counter-argument.
Processed foods deserve praise. And lots of it. We humans have known processing works for millennia but it’s only been in the last 200 years that food scientists have been able to tell us why. Science is our best friend when it comes to cheese making and wine making and year round availability of what used to be seasonal perishables.
Perhaps the problem lies not with “processing” per se but with how the term has been used and the way certain influencers use NOVA terminology to bash policies or business they don’t agree with.
Advice to avoid processed food is stupid, simplistic advice. But a good case can be made that allowing convenient, prepackaged foods and snacks to push freshly prepared foods off the plate may be a contributing factor to an unhealthy pattern. Ultra-processed foods in and of themselves do not cause obesity. However, for reasons yet to be determined, a dietary pattern comprised of ultra-processed foods may be a contributing factor to weight gain as per the research last year by Kevin Hall.
I find NOVA to be a useful tool to distinguish between a carrot and a carrot cake. A fresh carrot is on the raw or minimally processed end of the continuum and a carrot cake formulated with flavors and colors and packaged to remain shelf stable for years is on the ultra-processed end of the continuum. Baking the carrot cake at home is mid point on the continuum.
I appreciate the NOVA food classification system because it reflects how I think about food from a cook’s perspective. As an RDN who works in recipe analyst, I appreciate the value of nutrition stats. My reason for following this excellent blog is to work on developing common ground and look for points of agreement.
Great to hear from you again Linn!
You are helping me appreciate the value of NOVA classification from the viewpoint of a cook. Julie and I still have problems with Group IV, the ultra-processed foods. We believe that it is too wide a category classified by an arbitrary scheme based on unsubstantiated fear rather than on scientific evidence. What is not commented upon in news articles about Kevin Hall’s NIH study is that neither the subjects in the ultra-processed group nor the “unprocessed” group maintained their weight.* The former consumed roughly 250 more calories a day than needed to maintain weight while the latter consumed roughly 250 less calories a day to maintain weight. The data was consistent for both groups before and after the switch. When I took nutrition classes back in the 70s, I learned that unintended weight loss is just as dangerous as unintended weight gain.
With regard to your homemade carrot cake, is it really “healthier” than the one purchased from your neighborhood supermarket or such ultra-processed products as a whole-grain, low-sugar breakfast cereal or plant-based burger? I concur that our society consumes way too much sugar, but if there ever was an ultra-processed ingredient, it would be white sugar crystals. One of my mantras is not all junk foods are processed and not all processed foods are junk.
Let’s try to keep this conversation going to see if we can both get more to the middle on processed foods. I sense from your comments that you have been more successful in that endeavor than I have been.
* See https://processedfoodsite.com/2019/06/04/what-does-the-nih-ultra-processed-food-study-really-tell-us/