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article imageHighly processed foods make up over 60% of our diet

By Karen Graham     Mar 29, 2015 in Food
Boston - What's in your grocery bags? You might be surprised to learn that on average, over 60 percent of the calories in products Americans buy in grocery stores comes from highly processed foods, according to a new study.
We have heard it before: Highly processed foods have more fats, sugars and salt than less processed foods. But a recent study has found that these highly processed foods are the dominant and staple part of many American's diets. This knowledge doesn't help consumers who are really trying to improve their family's eating habits.
Jennifer Poti, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said this in a news release from the American Society for Nutrition: "Overall, we found that not only are highly processed foods a dominant, stable part of U.S. purchasing patterns, but also that the highly processed foods that households are purchasing are higher in fat, sugar and salt, on average, compared to the less-processed foods that they buy."
Poti and her team analysed one year's worth of grocery purchases of over 157,000 American households from 2000 to 2012. The participants in the study were followed for a period of four years, on average, and purchased a total of 1.2 million food items. Now that is a lot of grocery items to analyse, but that is exactly what the team did, and the findings were significant.
The team linked each product to its nutritional information, product description and ingredient list. Doing so enabled the researchers to determine the degree of processing involved. Here's an easy example. A basket of blueberries would be simple to identify as a fruit and a minimally processed food item. But a loaf of white bread is slightly different. It is a highly processed food item containing everything from enriched wheat flour to well, here is an example of a white bread nutrition label: "White Bread (Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron(Ferrous Sulfate, Reduced Iron), Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Yeast, Salt, Soybean Oil, Sugar, Malt, Dough Conditioners(Ascorbic Acid, Calcium Sulfate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate),Calcium Propionate(To Retard Mold Growth))"
The findings from this study were presented at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology annual meeting, in Boston, Mass on Saturday, March 28, 2015. Poti said the significance of the shift in households purchasing higher calorie "ready-to-eat" foods is detrimental to our diets, adding, "The unshifting dominance of ultra-processed and ready-to-eat foods as major calorie contributors to U.S. diet and their poor nutrient profile support the need to incentivize food manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their products."
While admitting that American's have very strong opinions in their beliefs about highly processed foods, until now, Poti says we have never had "the evidence needed to settle the debate." Poti added, "It is important that when we discuss processed foods, we acknowledge that many processed foods, such as canned vegetables or whole-grain breakfast cereals, are important contributors to nutrition and food security. However, it is the highly processed foods . . . that might potentially be related to obesity."
More about Processed foods, more fat sugar and salt, differences in processed and highly processed, 60 percent of calories, Obesity
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