PhotoCalories are a lot cheaper and more plentiful than they were 60 years ago. A big reason for that is technological advancement in the food industry.

Sixty years ago, people mostly ate their potatoes baked or mashed. Today, mechanization has made French fries the most common way a potato is prepared. It's cheap and easy.

But making food more plentiful and affordable has come at a health cost, according to Jennifer Poti, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. Last weekend Poti presented a study at a major nutrition conference, showing that processed foods make up more than 60% of the calories in food we buy.

Why is that significant? Poti says these food products tend to have more fat, sugar and salt than less-processed foods.

Strongly held beliefs

“Many Americans have strongly held opinions and beliefs about processed foods,” Poti said. “Some consider processed foods to be tasty, convenient and affordable choices while others contend that the combination of sugar, fat, salt and flavoring in these foods promotes overeating and contributes to obesity. But until now, we didn’t really have the evidence needed to settle this debate: No prior studies have examined whether highly processed foods collectively have a worse nutritional profile than minimally processed foods, using nutrition information and ingredient lists specific for barcoded food and beverage products.”

From 2000 to 2012, Poti and her team asked 157,142 households to use UPC barcode scanners to record all foods and beverages they purchased from grocery stores for at least one year.

True, loose vegetables from the produce section have no barcodes and thus, are not recorded as purchases. But Poti notes that plenty of fresh produce does come in wrapped containers with a barcode. Enough were included, she contends, to present a balanced outcome.

Degree of processing

As the households dutifully recorded their food purchases, the researchers linked each of the 1.2 million items to their nutrition information, product description and ingredient list, allowing the study to rank each product’s degree of food processing.

The researchers looked for two things – how processed the individual food items were and how many of them U.S. consumers purchased.

They defined terms this way:

Highly processed foods: things like soda, cookies, chips, white bread, candy and prepared meals

Unprocessed/minimally processed foods: things like fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, dried beans and fresh meat

The study also looked at convenience, drawing a distinction between foods that are ready to eat, ready to heat or that require cooking and/or preparation. It cites candy and chips as examples of ready-to-eat foods and frozen meals are a ready-to-heat food.

Stable part of purchasing patterns

“Overall, we found that not only are highly-processed foods a dominant, stable part of U.S. purchasing patterns, but also that the highly-processed foods that households are purchasing are higher in fat, sugar, and salt, on average, compared to the less-processed foods that they buy,” said Poti.

Poti isn't using her findings to browbeat major food manufacturers. Rather, she says the data should be used to find incentives for food companies to improve the nutritional quality of their food products, stressing that not all processed food is unhealthy.

“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,” she said. “However, it is the highly processed foods — those with an extensive degree of processing — that might potentially be related to obesity.”

Market incentives

In the end, the market might turn out to be a strong incentive for food manufacturers. Last week's surprise merger between Heinz and Kraft was viewed by some industry analysts as a reaction to declining sales, as many consumers embrace healthier choices.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quotes Michelle Lettrich, a local food blogger who uses recipes that include processed ingredients like Kraft's Velveeta.

“I still make them exactly as written, packaged products and all,” she told the newspaper. “I wouldn’t plan my weekly meals around packaged food, but I have no issue using them to make a recipe every once and awhile. I’m a big believer in the mantra 'all things in moderation.'”  

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