Processed Foods: Elimination or Illumination?

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When I was growing up, I would see commercials with a deep-voiced man who touted cereals “fortified with 5 vitamins and minerals.” At the time, I didn’t think much of those words. I was a kid — to me, cereal was cereal.

But as I would come to appreciate throughout my education in nutritional immunology, those were more than just words. The fortification of foods and beverages such as bread, milk, cereal, iodized salt and many others represents nothing less than one of the greatest triumphs in history for public health.

For this, we can thank an advance that, ironically, is now akin to a curse word for many: processed foods. “Processed” has become shorthand for calorie-laden and nutritionally deficient “junk food.” We’re advised to eliminate all processed foods our diets, to avoid foods with more than five ingredients or with ingredients that are hard to pronounce.

No one can credibly dispute that Americans consume far more sugars, salt and unhealthy fats than we should. Eating too many foods high in these components is one of the surest routes to preventable diseases like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

But by the same token, tarring all processed foods with such a broad brush could have the unintended consequence of many of those very same adverse health outcomes. So rather than eliminate processed foods, maybe we should instead “illuminate” them — to shed some light on the science behind three broad areas of benefits from food processing: nutrition, sustainability and food safety.

Nutrition

As little as a century ago, preventable diseases that now are alien to most of us in the U.S. were all too common, contributing to shorter lifespans and higher numbers of childhood deaths. Children with rickets suffered from painful bone defects and deformities. People with goiter endured a range of terrible symptoms, manifested in sometimes frightening neck bulges. The niacin deficiency known as pellagra caused skin irritation, sores and other painful and dangerous symptoms.

The fortification of foods with crucial micronutrients has helped practically eradicate those diseases in the developed world because of food processing.

Do you wince when you see food labels with multisyllabic ingredients? If you saw the word “alpha-tocopherol,” would you put the package back on the shelf in disgust? Too bad, because alpha-tocopherol is just the term for vitamin E when it’s added to foods.

When added to foods, the listing of vitamins and minerals can include both scientific and common names. So shoppers who are intimidated by dicey words like “ascorbic acid” might be tempted to avoid foods containing it. And there is consumer research data to support this hypothesis. Data from the IFIC Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey found that only one in four Americans believe ascorbic acid is healthy for you. On the other hand, four out of five said they believe vitamin C is healthy.

You can probably see where I’m going here. Ascorbic acid and vitamin C are exactly the same thing. It’s just that one of them has a “scarier” name.

Sustainability

Nearly four in 10 Americans say sustainability is one of the top factors that impact their food-purchasing decisions. Modern agriculture and food production will play an important role in feeding the 9 billion people who will inhabit our planet by 2050. Crucial to that end is one of the most pressing sustainability issues that food processing can help address: food waste.

By some estimates, up to half of all food produced is never consumed. Yet our 2016 Food and Health Survey found that about one-third of Americans think they don’t contribute to food waste in any way! Processed foods can have the same nutritional profile as their non-processed counterparts, and they can have the added benefits of extended shelf life, freshness and stability.

Food Safety

According to the CDC, one in six Americans get a foodborne illness every year — and 3,000 will die. Safe food-handling practices are one of the best lines of defense, but so is food processing. Processed and packaged foods not only can have longer shelf lives, but they are often less susceptible to the development of foodborne pathogens.

Food allergies and similar disorders also are a growing concern. One of the most serious is celiac disease, an autoimmune condition affecting about 1 percent of the population. Currently the only effective way to treat celiac disease is a lifelong gluten-free diet — and many others suffer from gluten sensitivity.

But how do you get the gluten out while still making the foods we love palatable? You guessed it: food processing.

Unfortunately, many consumers take a somewhat irrational view of processed foods. We found that when given a choice between two otherwise identical foods, consumers have a strong preference for those they consider to be less processed.

While eliminating certain ingredients and foods is currently in vogue, a well-informed should take a moment to consider processed foods in a broader context. Many processed foods can contribute to a safe, affordable and healthy diet. So it’s long past time to reclaim this term and celebrate some of the benefits and choices that are made possible by processing our food and the science behind them.