The Circular Logic of Healthy Foods

The circular logic of healthy foods is something that surfaces in writing and research about obesity, nutrition, and health. A prime example can be found right now in hand-wringing about the place of “ultra-processed food” in American dietary habits. Eurídice Martínez Steele and colleagues analyzed self-reported dietary data from NHANES and found that:

Ultra-processed foods comprised 57.9% of energy intake, and contributed 89.7% of the energy intake from added sugars. The content of added sugars in ultra-processed foods (21.1% of calories) was eightfold higher than in processed foods (2.4%) and fivefold higher than in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients grouped together (3.7%).

And they go on to conclude:

Decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.

If you read popular nutrition advice, you have no doubt picked up on the idea that labeling a food “ultra-processed” is a more precise substitute for labeling it as “junk.” But from there, the logic becomes circular. When sorting food into minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed categories, one of the key characteristics that places a food into the ultra-processed category is the addition of sugar and other ingredients to improve its appeal. So finding a lot of added sugar in a category of foods partly defined by added sugar is not a huge surprise.

This circular logic causes problems because food has many dimensions but our tendency is to focus on only a few of its attributes in pursuit of healthful diets. For the longest time, foods high in fat and cholesterol were targeted as unhealthy choices. Now, with more focus on sugar, nuts and eggs are enjoying a renewed reputation for good nutrition.

Simple labels for good and bad foods are attractive and ultimately distracting. Using the ultra-processed label may prove to be as deceptive as low-fat claims have been in the past. Processed foods indeed make up a big part of the American food supply. They provide people with a major portion of important nutrients they need — not just sugar, salt, and fat. Nutritional value varies tremendously between individual products.

Circular logic and simplistic labels — like ultra-processed — might make for simpler food choices. But it’s not clear they will bring us to better choices.

Click here to read the study by Steele et al, here to read more from the American Society for Nutrition on processed foods, and here to read more from the Atlantic.

Kaffeebohnen, photograph © Frank Behrens / flickr

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March 11, 2016

3 Responses to “The Circular Logic of Healthy Foods”

  1. March 11, 2016 at 10:35 am, Joan Ifland said:

    I think you’ve hit this nail on the head. To me, there are only two kinds of food: unprocessed and processed. Processed foods have been shown to have a variety of addictive properties while unprocessed foods do not excite the addictive pathways in the brain. In my opinion, we need to keep this simple.

    • March 11, 2016 at 11:01 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Joan!

  2. March 16, 2016 at 3:34 am, Aaron said:

    Yes, there are only unprocessed or processed food. all the other are just bulls**t media create.