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Packaged food in the U.S. remains over-processed and unhealthy

New research from Northwestern University demonstrates that the U.S. packaged food and beverage supply remains ultra-processed and generally unhealthy. The data is drawn from various food samples taken in 2018 and subject to laboratory testing. The researchers state this is an important area of inquiry, since about 80 percent of a typical U.S. consumer’s total calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages (both packaged and unpackaged). When such food is unhealthy, this can play a direct part in the development of chronic diseases, such as obesity or cardiovascular disease.

Commenting on the study, lead researcher Dr. Abigail Baldridge states: “To say that our food supply is highly processed won’t shock anyone, but it’s important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers.”

She adds: “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”

In terms of what ultra-processed food is, the generally accepted classification is drawn from the NOVA Food Classification System developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. This defines ultra-processed foods as foods containing industrial formulations largely composed of substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins), often derived from hydrogenated fats and modified starch. This includes chemicals synthesized in laboratories.

To highlight the concern, the researchers examined 230,156 products and discovered that 71 percent of products taken from store shelves, like bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets and sugary drinks met the classification of ultra-processed.

To help consumers to make more informed choices, the researchers (working with The George Institute for Global Health in Australia) have developed an app called FoodSwitch, which is being made available for free. The developers describe it as like “having a nutritionist at your side in the grocery store”. After scanning packaged foods, the app suggests to the user healthier alternatives, as the following video demonstrates:

The research has been published in the journal Nutrients, and it is titled “The Healthfulness of the US Packaged Food and Beverage Supply: A Cross-Sectional Study.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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