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The Truth about Processed Foods

There’s nothing that unites us or is so central to health and well-being like food. From feeding your family to grabbing a quick snack on the run, food safety and a smooth-running food supply chain are essential to all of us.

On the other hand, if other claims are to be believed, processed foods are the source of much of humanity’s ills, including epidemics of obesity and runaway increases in chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. As with many things, the truth is somewhere in between. Defining terms, researching issues, making intelligent choices, and affirming health as a personal responsibility can put an illuminating spin on processed foods and food processors.


There’s a lot going on behind the headlines both for processors and consumers.


Recent studies reveal that not many Americans care to investigate product claims for themselves. NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization, released a new study showing 61% of Americans are concerned about the products they put in, on and around their bodies. However, 34% say they rarely or never research product claims. Almost half (46%) of Americans say they have purchased a product despite being unsure of the validity of product claims.


Highlights from the 2019 survey include:


Millennials have much greater concern over food safety and younger Americans are generally more trusting of claims made on social media. 74% of millennials (born 1980-1994) are concerned about potentially harmful food and other consumer products. By comparison, only 64% of Gen X (born 1965-1979) and 53% of Baby Boomers (born 1944-1964) are concerned about the safety of these products. Nearly half of Millennials (48%) and half of Gen Xers (51%) trust claims on social media.


By gender, men are more likely to trust claims made on social media or by celebrities or influencers. Men are significantly more likely to trust claims on social media (44% vs. 31% of women), as well as claims made by celebrities or influencers (39% vs. 26% of women).


Parents have much greater concern over the safety of products they put in, on and around their bodies. 79% of parents are concerned compared to 55% of non-parents. Interestingly, 45% of parents (compared to just 17% of non-parents) admit they have purchased a product despite realizing its claim was invalid.


Third-party certification is highly trusted. About 85% trust independent, third-party certification organizations and 78% trust claims made by government agencies. Conversely, only 32% trust claims made by celebrities and influencers.


Defining Terms


According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the definition of a processed food varies widely depending on the source. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state—that is, any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. So, washing that apple to remove any traces of pesticides meets the definition of a processed food, as does cooking.


A popular system to define processed foods was introduced in 2009, called the NOVA classification. Its four categories detail the degree to which a food is processed: The categories are: (1) unprocessed or minimally processed foods; (2) processed culinary ingredients that are typically not eaten on their own but used to prepare minimally processed foods, such as flour and oils; (3) processed foods that may have added salt, sugar, or fats to unprocessed or minimally processed foods (think of canned sardines in oil); and (4) ultra-processed or highly processed foods that go beyond incorporating salt, sweeteners, or fat to add artificial colors, flavors and preservatives for shelf stability, preserving texture and increasing palatability. They are typically ready-to-eat and tend to be low in fiber and nutrients. Recent data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that ultra-processed foods comprised about 60% of total calories in the U.S. diet.


Food Pyramid defining the differences between minimally-processed and highly-processed foods.

NOVA classifications define the differences between minimally-processed and highly-processed foods.


While recognized by the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or USDA do not endorse NOVA classifications. Part of the criticism includes that NOVA does not provide comprehensive lists of specific foods in each category, so the consumer is left to guess where each may fall.


How Consumers Can Educate Themselves


Consumers have powerful tools for deciding how much processing they are willing to accept in their food. New rules and a new design for nutrition labels for processed foods were finalized by the US Food and Drug Administration on May 20, 2016. Food processors were initially given until July 26, 2018 to comply (or July 26, 2019 if they have less than $10 million in annual food sales). A proposed rule by the FDA would extend the compliance deadline to January 1, 2020 (or January 1, 2021 for qualified small businesses). For food and dietary supplement labeling purposes, the amounts of vitamins and nutritionally essential minerals in a serving are expressed as a percent of Daily Value (%DV). Many of the definitions of 100% Daily Value were changed as part of the revision.


While food processors are facing a number of emerging issues, including more demands for food transparency from consumers and how their plants can respond with intelligent operation and data collection that increases efficiencies, reduces recalls, and improves crisis response, it should be emphasized that the food delivery supply chain has and always had food safety and consumer service at its foundation. Such strategies and new tools for food processors will be explored in Part 2 of this blog this series, Food Processors Expanding Their Toolbox.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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