What one word best describes the impact of food processing on the American diet? Award-winning Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel began Monday morning’s panel discussion titled “Processed Foods: The Good, the Bad, and the Science” by inviting audience members to submit their answers via the IFT17 app. When a word cloud soon appeared on large screens behind the panelists, the words were varied and included terms like affordability, accessibility, convenience, obesity, safety, and nutrition. It was a fitting start for a wide-ranging discussion in which panelists explored the topic from varied perspectives. The panelists were nutrition expert and consultant Richard Black, Cargill R&D vice-president Chris Mallett, obesity expert and medical doctor Yoni Freedhoff, and historian Rachel Laudan. Much of the discussion focused on the fact that many of the greatest benefits of processed foods are inextricably tied to some negatives: The food supply is abundant and affordable, but such abundance and affordability mean that avoiding overconsumption is a challenge.
Cargill’s Mallett pointed out that negative discussions about processed foods tend to focus on what he suggested might be better termed “formulated foods.” That category, he noted, includes things like chocolate, ice cream, and prepared breakfast pastries versus naturally structured foods such as meat; fresh fruits and vegetables; and fermented foods such as beer, wine, and yogurt.
For Freedhoff, one of the issues of greatest concern is the way in which processed foods are marketed. Packaging for sugary cereal that touts the fact that it contains whole grains and vitamin D is “probably not a good idea,” he said. Marketing initiatives have contributed to creating “a playing field that is heavily skewed toward industry,” Freedhoff continued. “There are plenty of yogurts that are just fermented ice cream. These are not health foods. But because they’re called yogurt, the word alone confers health benefits.”
Mallett reflected on the role of ingredient suppliers like Cargill in addressing consumer demands. “What we’re trying to do is help the branded food companies meet the expectations of consumers,” he noted. “From our perspective, that is a commitment to meeting the choices that consumers want to make. Our position is not to demonize an ingredient. … Sometimes consumers want to have Truvia. Sometimes they want to have sugar. It’s for them to make that choice.”
Haspel countered Mallett’s observation with a provocative question. “Isn’t that a copout?” she asked, considering the scope of obesity and overweight within the population. “Let’s make the distinction between cause and correlation,” said Mallett, noting that scientific evidence doesn’t support singling out any one food or ingredient as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Instead, he said, it’s important to consider other potential contributing factors, including the microbiome and individual genetic inheritance. “Until we understand more about obesity, I suggest that we don’t demonize food,” he said.
Freedhoff agreed that obesity can be linked to multiple factors but pointed out that evidence suggests that caloric intake is a primary factor. “No single raindrop is responsible for the flood,” he said. He noted, however, that epigenetics and microbiome issues likely don’t explain why “weight gain is almost always a consequence” when people move to North America from other countries.
There’s no single answer to an issue as complex as obesity, Black observed. “We can’t expect to put taxes on soda and expect that to shift the needle on obesity. But it is one piece, and there are many other pieces that need to happen simultaneously.”
As the session drew to a close, panelists reflected on some of the indisputable achievements of the processed foods industry, including sodium reduction and the virtual elimination of trans fats from the food supply, achievements that Haspel characterized as “sort of heroic.”
“It’s all about the scientists in this room helping develop foods that either don’t compromise on taste or infringe only slightly,” said Mallett, or as Haspel described it, “harnessing the power of food science for good.”