‘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