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Food processing and human health

June 28, 2017

Bread and cheeseFood science and food processing are not new concepts, but they are receiving an onslaught of criticisms from a modern phenomenon: the denigration of science and technology and the benefits they provide. During the session “Is ‘Degree of Processing’ a Useful Way to Direct Food Selection and Dietary Guidelines” on Tuesday, June 27, speakers described how the degree of food processing is being used to determine the healthfulness of foods.

“Without food science and food processing, we would not have the population that we have and the population would not be as healthy,” said Daryl Lund, formerly with the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Yet many consumers perceive processing as undesirable and fresh, natural, and organic foods as healthier and more nutritious. Food processing is essential to provide nutrients/energy for human health and ultimately for human life, Lund said. Lund pointed out that consumers are easily swayed by opinions of celebrities, the tabloids, and various questionable news sources. “It’s no wonder we have a crisis in science associated with a lack of understanding,” Lund said. As a result, consumers are frequently overwhelmed both by the number of ingredients listed in foods and by the chemical names of some ingredients.

In addition, it is now widely accepted that the current pandemic of obesity and related chronic diseases is caused to some degree by prepared and processed foods, according to Barbara Ivens of Nutrition Information Exchange. Consumers thus believe that eating fewer processed foods and more local fresh foods will improve their health and help them lose weight. “Food processing is necessary to meet global food and nutrition needs,” Ivens said. “Local and fresh alone will not meet those global food and nutrition needs.” The food intake of the U.S. population is out of balance, she said. U.S. consumers eat far more meat and meat products than they should and far fewer vegetables and fruits than they should—perhaps that is a reason for obesity.

Ivens finds it even more disturbing that dietary guidelines are being based on the level of food processing. For example, a food classification system called NOVA categorizes food according to degree of processing. NOVA promotes avoiding processed foods, recommending that people eat only minimally processed foods and no ultra-processed foods. Moreover, whether or not a food is ultra-processed is perceived as an indicator of nutritional imbalance or deficiency. Despite the invalidity of such generalization, NOVA has been recognized as a valid tool for nutrition and public health by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Pan American Health Organization. “Healthy diets are a balance of food choices across all levels of processing,” Ivens remarked.

Julie Jones of St. Catherine University and the Healthy Grains Institute agreed. Nutrition and diet quality have little to do with processing, Jones said, pointing out that nearly all foods consumed in the United States are processed to some extent. Processed foods help decrease nutrient deficiencies, Jones declared. For example, if people were to rely on obtaining vitamin D from foods that naturally contain it, most people would never meet the recommended daily intake of vitamin D because most foods do not naturally contain it. Jones is perplexed by NOVA’s food classification system, which indicates that cheese and bread are ultra-processed while coffee is minimally processed. Jones is concerned that people following NOVA guidelines would become deficient in fiber intake as whole-grain breads provide dietary fiber but are considered ultra-processed by NOVA standards.

Indisputably, food processing has done far more good for the general public than harm. “If you give a man a fish, he can eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he can eat for a lifetime. But if you teach a man to process fish, he can feed a village,” Ivens said.