The Role of Processed Foods in Eating Habits

November 27, 2012

This month's featured nutritionist, Annette Maggi, discusses the benefits of processed foods.

Annette Maggi, MS, RD, LD, FADA

Data from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) suggests 43% of consumers have a negative view of processed foods while 18% have a positive view, leaving 39% somewhere in between. A simple google search for “avoid processed foods” brings up more than five million hits. It’s likely that consumers with a negative view of processed foods assume they’re all made in an industrial setting where fat, sodium, and artificial ingredients are added.

In reality, there isn’t a clear-cut definition of processed foods. The level of processing can vary greatly across a continuum. Minimally processed foods (think bagged spinach, cut fruits, roasted nuts) differ from foods that are processed to maintain freshness and nutrition (think frozen and canned fruits and vegetables) and from heavily processed foods (think microwaveable meals, frozen pizza).

In some circumstances (think vegetables flash frozen at the harvest location), processing provides a health benefit, locking in higher level of nutrients at the peak of growing. Over the past 100 years in the United States, nutrients have been added to foods (think iodine and folic acid) to end specific diseases like goiter and improve health outcomes, such as lowing rates of spina bifida in newborns. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that consumers are not getting the needed levels of key nutrients like vitamin A, iron, and several B vitamins from natural sources, and that processed foods increased the number of people consuming the required levels of these nutrients.

In addition to providing nutritional benefits, food is processed to ensure food safety, improve the palatability of food, increase availability and variety, and add convenience. Pasteurization of milk, having started in the late 1800s, is the classic example of processing for food safety. Cracking and grinding grains is now done commercially, taking a process formerly done at home and making it more convenient, efficient, and cost effective.

The discussion is less about evaluating all processed foods collectively, but more about the overall nutrient density that foods provide. Data in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans indicates some processed foods can contribute significantly to the amount of sodium and saturated fat in Americans’ eating habits. This is not, however, exclusive to processed foods. Some products with “clean labels” can be high in nutrients known to have negative impacts on health and low in those which positively contribute to nutritious eating habits. Lay’s Potato Chips, for example, tout they contain only three simple ingredients, but no one would consider these a health food. The same is true for Haagen Das Five brand of ice creams, which have only five ingredients in the product, but can have as much as 230 calories, 7 gm of saturated fat, and 23 gm sugar in a half-cup serving.

Uneasiness with technology, low scientific literacy, and a limited connection between people and agriculture in the U.S. all contribute to consumers’ views on processed foods. Professionals knowledgeable in food production such as product development scientists, dietitians, and quality assurance professionals can help bridge these gaps by adding videos of food harvesting and production onto food company websites, highlighting where food comes from, using consumer friendly terms to educate and explain where food comes from and how it is processed, and supporting local growers and agricultural causes.

There is growing concern that consumers are seeking to avoid all processed foods. They cannot all be grouped into one category, and many of these foods make significant contributions to healthy eating habits.

Annette Maggi, MS, RD, LD, FADA is the President of Annette Maggi & Associates, a nutrition marketing and communications consulting firm specializing in the interface between food manufacturers and retailers, and nutrition and regulatory affairs. Visit her website at Follow her on twitter at @annettemaggi.


Foods, Forticants, and Supplements: Where Do Americans Get Their Nutrients? Victor L. Fulgoni III et al. Journal of Nutrition, October 2011, 141(10): 1847-54.

Environment and Consumer Perspectives Surrounding Processed Foods, International Food Information Council, presented at 2009 IFT Annual Meeting.
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