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Take a bite: Are processed foods a vital part of your diet?



A paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says processed foods are a vital part of our diet.
A paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says processed foods are a vital part of our diet.
Maggie Starbard/NPR

We've all heard the healthy eating advice: Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, avoid eating processed foods. Only buy foods with ingredients you can pronounce.

So would it surprise you to read that the American Society for Nutrition considers processed foods a vital part of the American diet?

In a new paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Society argues that processed foods contribute to the health of the U.S. population:

"We conclude that processed foods are nutritionally important to American diets. They contribute to both food security (ensuring that sufficient food is available) and nutrition security (ensuring that food quality meets human nutrient needs.)"

Critics jumped on the paper for lumping everything from roasted nuts and hummus to Lucky Charms and Cheez-Its when discussing processed foods. The authors do point out that diets rich in nutrient-dense foods – whether processed or not – are more likely to meet nutrition guidelines:

"… although food processing has had positive impacts on human health, some of those successes have produced foods that, when consumed inappropriately or at inordinately high proportions of a total diet, are deleterious to health."

Controversial

As KPCC community health reporter Adrian Florido reports today, this paper has proved hugely controversial. Nutrition experts – including Dr. David Katz – director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University – say focusing on delivering better nutrition through processed foods is a mistake.

Katz told Florido that while process foods are a significant part of Americans' diet:

"… to say that getting nutrients from processed foods is a good thing and should continue ignores the fact that we could be getting those same nutrients from less processed foods and deriving better nutrition overall."

Florido also reports that Katz and others have concerns about the authors' potential conflicts of interest. The paper's lead author, and several co-authors, are either advisers to, have received funding from, or own stock in major food industry companies, including Nestle, Con Agra and Hershey.

Katz said:

"The concern here is that this may be more about defense of the status quo, than addressing fundamental problems with the American food supply and the typical American diet."

Response

Dr. Connie Weaver of Purdue University, the paper's lead author, said the paper is intended to spark a discussion among nutrients about the definition of processed foods. She also said she's promoting advances and refinements in food processing techniques, because a food's nutrient content is more important than whether it's fresh.

She told Florido:

"Processing is just not that relevant to the nutrient contribution, which is the bottom line of this paper."

Weaver said the authors’ relationships with the food industry did not influence the paper's conclusions.

Your turn

We want to hear from you. How prevalent are processed foods in your daily diet? Do you agree that a food’s nutrient content is more important than whether it’s fresh? Which healthy-eating rules do you follow? 

Tell us about it in the comments section below, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org.