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Processed Foods, Death, and Taxes

Along with death and taxes, processed foods seem to be an immovable fixture in American life. Two new studies of the American food supply presented today and yesterday at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions provide some new perspective.  Jennifer Poti and colleagues from UNC-Chapel Hill found that more than 75% of the calories purchased by U.S. households come from processed and ultra-processed foods.

In purchasing patterns between 2000 and 2012, they found little overall change in this dominant role for processed foods. But when they looked a little deeper, they found a shift away from ultra-processed foods among higher socioeconomic status (SES) households. Such a shift was not seen in lower SES households.

The scope of this effort is impressive. The researchers classified 1.2 million barcoded food products based on their formulation, convenience, nutrition profiles, and degree of processing. Poti noted the need for more objective data related to processed foods, saying:

It is important that when we discuss processed foods, we acknowledge that many processed foods, such as canned vegetables or whole-grain breakfast cereals, are important contributors to nutrition and food security. However, it is the highly processed foods — those with an extensive degree of processing — that might potentially be related to obesity.

In the last year, both the Obesity Society and the American Society for Nutrition have adopted statements noting the importance of processed foods and their health effects. Both statements acknowledged that processed foods account for much of the food that is available to consumers. And both statements have generated lively, ongoing discussion.

It’s great to have new data about the nutritional quality of processed foods. But even with this expanded data, generalizations remain tricky. Some of the best perspective — captured in the Obesity Society’s position — is advice to focus on energy density.

Food manufacturers must step up to the challenge and provide products that help people get some of the calorie bombs out of their diets.

Click here and here to read the study abstracts from Poti et al. Click here to read more from HealthDay. Click here to read the ASN scientific statement and here to read the Obesity Society position statement.

Iconic Vegemite, photograph © Blake Danger Bentley / flickr

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