Processed Feud: How the Food Industry Shapes Nutrition

What exactly does “processed food” mean? According to a new position paper from the American Society For Nutrition (ASN) processing means “the alteration of foods from the state in which they are harvested or raised to better preserve them and feed consumers.” By this definition, processed foods encompass everything from washed raw spinach and frozen strawberries to Betty Crocker’s Cheesy Scalloped boxed potatoes (a box of the latter is made up of reconstituted ingredients held together with partially hydrogenated oils, artificial dyes, and the sodium equivalent of 60 potato chips per serving).

In fact, according to the ASN, food processing “began in prehistoric times.” The paper argues that what we do in our kitchens is really no different from what the food industry does in its commercial processing plants (although I have yet to meet anyone who can partially hydrogenate oil or make aspartame at home). Rather than differentiate between various types or scales of processing, the group used its own journal, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, to proclaim that: “processed foods contribute to the health of populations.”

At a time when one in eight Americans has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and one in three American adults lives with hypertension, this vague and innocuous definition of processing does more harm than good.

Yes, some degree of “processing” has always been key to preserving and preparing food. But recent history points to something very different. Take potatoes, for example. In the 1960s, processed potatoes (i.e., French fries, boxed mashed potatoes, potato chips) accounted for 35 percent of U.S. potato production; by the 2000s, that figure climbed to 64 percent. Similarly, in the 1950s, Americans consumed 109 pounds of caloric sweeteners per capita. By 2000, that figure had skyrocketed 39 percent to 152 pounds, largely due to the switch from cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup in the 1980s, an ingredient which quickly became ubiquitous in highly processed foods.

Why doesn’t the ASN’s position paper bother to differentiate between degrees of processing? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the ASN is sponsored by some of the most notorious producers of processed foods–including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and General Mills. Criticism of processed foods, or the very products on which these companies’ bottom lines depend, would endanger such relationships. As New York University’s Dr. Marion Nestle said to MedPage (reg. required), “because members of the [ASN] committee have financial connections with food companies, the position statement is conflicted and its conclusions come as no surprise.”

It’s tough to say for sure, but this type of corporate sponsorship may be part of what motivated the authors of the statement to argue that processed food should be solely evaluated based on its nutrient contribution and degree of convenience. In that case, Froot Loops Marshmallow cereal would get a thumbs up, as it is easily portable and fortified with 11 vitamins and minerals; never mind the 14 grams of added sugar per serving, the inclusion of five artificial dyes, and the presence of partially hydrogenated oils.

Michele Simon, public health lawyer and president of Eat Drink Politics, thinks the conflicts of interest are evident: “The paper has industry spin written all over it. Just wait for the major processed food companies to start pointing to it as ‘sound science’ to defend their unhealthy products.”

Indeed, this myopic look at processed food is music to the food industry’s ears. When we examine nutrition through a reductionist lens of grams of fiber or percentages of vitamins and minerals and ignore actual ingredient lists, it’s easier to make an argument for the “healthier” versions of highly processed foods.

A serving of 22 almonds does not offer the iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, or vitamin B12 (all fortified) that Froot Loops do. The almonds do, however, have heart-healthy fats and antioxidants (which are not reflected on a nutrition label) without the added sugar or artificial additives. But the real tragedy here is that by ASN’s account, sugary cereals and dry roasted almonds both fit into the same category of processed foods.

The ASN’s position paper goes on to state that “if enrichment and fortification were not present, a large percentage of the population would have had inadequate intakes of vitamins A, C, E, D, and calcium.” This, of course, is only an issue when intake of whole foods is low. Consider that one sweet potato, a half cup of spinach or a half cup of carrots each delivers well over a day’s worth of vitamin A, or that a mere half cup of red peppers contains more than the daily recommendation of vitamin C.

If a large percentage of the population is low in vitamins A and C, it points to a problematically low intake of whole, real foods. In that case, the question we should be asking is: Why, when so many available foods offer nutrients in abundance, is our nutrient intake so low? The answer would at least begin to shed light on systemic, widespread issues that affect public health—and we might find that solution requires more than sprinkling isolated nutrients into highly processed products.

Even worse, the ASN defends processed foods by arguing that reformulation (i.e., products like whole grain Teddy Grahams) has nutritional advantages. ASN even states that “educat[ing] the public in processing techniques” and “defin[ing] and support[ing] food processing research” are two of the food industry’s key responsibilities, essentially co-signing further conflicts of interest. Keep in mind that the food industry has fought tooth and nail to keep artificial trans fats as a Generally Recognized as Safe ingredient, despite the years of solid evidence that show how destructive they are to our cardiovascular system.

ASN also points to “appetite-suppressing” compounds which are currently being studied for potential inclusion in foods as a potentially positive development. Interestingly, however, there is no mention of the science that goes into creating addictive junk food, as documented thoroughly by Michael Moss in Salt, Sugar, Fat.

Fortunately, many public health experts without ties to industry have spoken critically of processed foods. Dr. Carlos Monteiro of Brazil’s University of Sao Paolo, for instance, coined the term “ultra-processed food” to refer to “attractive, hyper-palatable, cheap, ready-to-consume food products that are characteristically energy-dense, fatty, sugary or salty and generally obesogenic.” While that definition could use some tweaking, it sets important and much needed parameters. (My issue with these foods is not so much fat content itself as the presence of highly refined, unhealthy fats, for example, and I prefer health-focused, rather than weight-focused dialogue).

Public health and nutrition dialogues need clear, explicit messages. Dietary fats, for instance, have varying qualities; while trans fats are a cardiovascular atrocity, monounsaturated fats improve heart health. Naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars are very different animals. The same goes for processed foods. How is it that a national nutrition organization can simply choose not to recognize that cooking a pot of oatmeal is vastly different from making a Three Musketeers bar in a processing plant?

It’s a real shame that, rather than clarify the conversation on processed foods, ASN’s position paper only confuses the American public further while giving the food industry unwarranted kudos and a pass to continue business as usual. Then again, the latter happens so often you might think that it too had been going on since prehistoric times.

Nutrition Label 2.0: Bigger, Bolder, Better

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama–known for her role in the Let’s Move! Campaign–announced the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed changes to The Nutrition Facts label. These are the first changes to the familiar black-and-white informational text box since its inception in 1993. And they couldn’t have arrived any sooner. Read more

The Year in Food: McD’s, Big Food Tweets, Best New Reads, & GMO Seeds

It’s almost the end of December, which means it’s time to look back at the year’s highlights and lowlights. In 2011, I opted for a straightforward chronological review of that year’s major food and nutrition issues. Last year, I took a more didactic approach, pointing out the lessons imparted by the year’s biggest food stories. This time around, I pay homage to high school yearbooks and take a look back at the year in food and nutrition via superlatives. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the class of 2013. Read more

Coca-Cola’s Assault on Tap Water

While public health advocates have sung the praises of tap water for years, Coca-Cola has been focusing on its own covert assault on the affordable, healthful, and refreshing beverage. Unbeknownst to many in the nutrition and public health world, the soft drink giant launched a  “Cap the Tap” program–aimed at restaurants–in 2010, described in the following manner on the Coke Solutions Web site: Read more

Take Sodium Reduction Advice with a Grain of Salt

For years, the public health nutrition field has warned Americans about the risks associated with a high-sodium diet. This past April, the New York City Department of Health launched a sodium reduction campaign encouraging the purchase of lower-sodium packaged foods. More recently, The American Journal of Hypertension published a series of point-counterpoint articles debating the weight of the evidence supporting recommendations to reduce sodium. I worry that when the crux of the conversation focuses exclusively on sodium reduction, it overlooks a crucial part of the puzzle: The ratio of sodium to potassium in our diets.  Read more

Live Longer, Cut Out the Crap

Bolivian indigenous farmer Carmelo Flores made global headlines this week as “the oldest person to have ever lived.” Though that claim has yet to be verified, part of Mr. Flores’ story is that he attributes his longevity to a traditional Andean diet of quinoa, riverside mushrooms, and coca leaves. Not surprisingly, this has led to hyperbolic headlines, such as Australia’s Daily Telegraph‘s “Quinoa, Mushrooms, and Coca Kept Me Alive for 123 Years.” Read more

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Big Food Controversy

This past February, I created Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group co-founded with 15 other registered dietitians that advocates for ethical and socially responsible sponsorships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This came on the heels of the release of public health lawyer Michele Simon’s thorough report “And Now A Word From Our Sponsors,” which took an in-depth look at the Academy’s Big Food ties, making national headlines. Read more

The Latest McFib: “Our Food Is Healthy”

Last week, in what is yet another example of Big Food’s symbiotic relationship with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), McDonald’s Director of Nutrition, Registered Dietitian Cindy Goody, spoke to her fellow colleagues at the Utah Dietetic Association meeting about the chain’s new “healthy initiatives.” McDonald’s is such a good friend of AND that it is also a “gold sponsor” at next month’s California Dietetic Association meeting. Read more