Making Food Processing “Cool” Again Requires a Fresh Perspective and Informed Consumers: New ASN Statement Highlights Important Health and Food Safety Benefits

"Fresh” and “local” are terms some shoppers seek in the foods and beverages they purchase and consume because they perceive them to be of a higher quality and possess more nutrients than other foods. Intuitively, it would seem that food closest to the farm on which it was grown would be better tasting and more nutritious than packaged foods. However, this is not always the case. In fact, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Scientific Statement, “Processed Foods: Contributions to Nutrition” (Weaver, et al., AJCN indicates that “processed” foods can actually contribute a considerable amount of nutrients to the American diet by capturing food when it is at its peak of quality.

Although the term “processed” connotes unhealthful or “junk” food in some consumers’ minds, all foods must undergo processing to some degree. In IFIC Foundation’s Understanding Our Food Communications Tool Kit, a processed food is defined as “Any food other than a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject 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.” In fact, research has shown that processed foods, as defined here, provide both nutrients that are lacking in the American diet, as well as those components that should be limited. Regardless of processing, consumers need to understand how to identify nutrient-dense foods important for their health, while staying within their individual calorie needs.

Food processing techniques have contributed to the variety of foods found in today’s marketplace.  IFIC Foundation developed a spectrum that classifies foods by the degree of processing, showing that food processing occurs on a continuum, from foods that are minimally processed such as washed and packaged fruits and vegetables and bagged salads, to foods packaged to stay fresh and save time such as prepared foods and frozen meals. (IFIC Foundation, 2010) This continuum is regularly cited by other organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in discussions on this topic.

According to the ASN statement, processed foods make valuable nutritional contributions to the US diet beyond the benefits of convenience, extended shelf-life, palatability, affordability and accessibility. This research found that minimally processed foods account for only about 300 calories per day, a small percentage of the average calorie intake. However, these foods fulfill critical nutrient needs, including providing considerable amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B12.

In addition, when considering food security for a growing population and agricultural set-backs due to changing weather patterns, processed foods can help ensure we all have enough food.  According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service data, 17.6 million American households had difficulty putting food on the table. (Economic Research Report No. (ERR-155) 41 pp, September 2013) Worldwide, the number of undernourished people has continued to rise. An estimated one-sixth of people across the planet are reported to be under- or malnourished. In the ASN statement, Weaver and others make the point that to reach national and global goals for nutrition and health, food processing must be incorporated into social and economic reform.

The American food supply is one of the safest in the world, in part due to innovations in food processing.  For example, preservatives added to packaged fresh, canned, and frozen foods help prevent microbes from causing foodborne illness and extend the shelf-life of our food, reducing food waste and adding to the sustainability of the food supply. For those consumers whose who have specific dietary needs that require them to consume foods with less sugar, salt, protein, or fat, food processing has provided choices that are good-tasting and affordable. In fact, as the science of nutrition advances, foods that are designed to meet the needs of individuals based on age, gender, or genetic code will lead to a more personalized marketplace. These are some reasons why food processing has, is, and will continue to help meet our needs.

Health professionals can play a valuable role in clarifying the misperceptions surrounding food processing. The benefits of food processing directly affect consumers and their families by providing choices to family tables and restaurant menus, offering a wide spectrum of high-quality flavors and nutrients. For busy families, food processing makes it possible to have time-saving, nutritious foods and beverages, which provide opportunities for consumers to find foods that fit within their lifestyle.

Conclusions from the ASN Statement:

  • 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 our nutrient needs).
  • Processed foods provide both nutrients to encourage and components to limit as specified in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Diets are more likely to meet food guidance recommendations if nutrient-dense foods, regardless of degree of processing, are selected.
  • More effective and accurate communication between those who produce food, those who study food, and those who purchase food will improve the overall knowledge about processed food.

Weaver CM, Dwyer D, Fulgoni VL, King JC, Leveille GA, MacDonald RS, Ordovas J and Schnakenberg D.  Processed foods: Contributions to nutrition.  Am J Clin Nutr. 2014; 99 (in press)