Processed Foods: Where Do We Go From Here?
The director of Yale's Prevention Research Center weighs in on the American Society for Nutrition's recent scientific statement on processed foods.
By David Katz, MD, MPH
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This is an interesting, and challenging, topic. For one thing, of course processed foods contribute importantly to nutrient intake -- partly because the typical American diet is overwhelmingly made up of processed foods, many of which are highly fortified (Total cereal is the archetype).
Only 1.5 percent of Americans meet daily recommendations for both vegetables and fruits, so the importance of processed foods to the nutrients we are getting says nothing about where we could, or should be getting those nutrients.
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Of course, this issue requires an operational definition of processed foods. At the extreme, these are foods that all but glow in the dark. On the other hand, cooking, freezing, drying, and fermenting are also forms of "processing," making grilled salmon, frozen peas, dried figs, and organic plain yogurt "processed foods" too. So much depends on just what we mean.
As for the Academy's position, it is to be expected -- partly because, as noted, until the typical American diet improves, processed foods are indeed an important source of nutrients. Partly, the Academy is entangled with the food industry, deriving much of its financial support from companies that manufacture processed foods.
And partly, the entire profession of dietetics grew out of advances in nutrient biochemistry, hospital-based nutrition, and a focus on the details of nutriture rather than a focus on wholesome foods in sensible combinations per se. The Blue Zones -- places in the world where people live measurable longer lives, like Sardinia in Italy and Okinawa in Japan -- no more attribute their healthful diets to dietitians than to physicians; they owe those benefits to their culture.
Finally, there are sources without the Academy's conflicts of interest that have taken a similar position. Atlantic author David Freedman wrote a provocative piece suggesting that "junk" food could be the solution to obesity -- meaning that food could be incrementally improved.
I disagreed with him on his choice of words, but not entirely on the position. I believe, as a public health pragmatist, that we will indeed have to trade up processed foods rather than expect to see a sudden, massive shift to [fresh] produce.
So, there is a rational argument here that we should do the best we can with the food supply we've got, and not make perfect the enemy of good.
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