Cutting out processed foods does not automatically lead to a healthier diet

Switching to less processed does not guarantee a healthy diet; the types of foods may be more important than their level of processing.

Processed foods get a lot of negative attention but when it comes to nutrition, their bad reputation may not be entirely justified.

In a recent study, researchers compared two diets: one emphasizing minimally processed foods and the other emphasizing ultra-processed foods. They found that switching to “simple” foods, meaning less processed, does not guarantee a healthy diet. This suggests that the specific types of foods we eat may be more important than their level of processing.

“This study shows that it’s possible to eat a low-quality diet even when you’re choosing mostly processed foods,” Julie Hess, Ph.D., a research nutritionist at the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research, said in a press release. . Center, which led the study.

“It also shows that more processed and less processed diets can be equally nutritious or non-nutritious, but the more processed diet may have a longer shelf life and be less expensive,” she continued.

What are processed foods?

Processed food refers to the extent of physical, biological or chemical changes made to food before consumption. Minimal processing includes cleaning, cutting, grinding, drying, fermentation, or pasteurization, which is seen in foods such as cut or frozen vegetables and packaged nuts, grains and cereals.

On the other hand, highly processed foods involve significant transformations such as hydrogenated oils, modifying starches, adding flavor enhancers, or coloring agents. Examples include canned or instant soups and sauces, soft drinks, flavored yogurt, and margarine.

Researchers from the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Soy Nutrition Institute Global, and the Universities of Minnesota and North Dakota questioned the notion that increased intake of processed foods automatically improves diet quality.

This follows previous findings showing that it is possible to create a nutritious menu that adheres to dietary guidelines even when most calories come from foods classified as ultra-processed foods according to the NOVA scale, which categorizes food based on levels of processing.

To find out, they modified a menu previously established for a typical Western diet, which tends to include calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods, such as refined grains, red meat, high-sugar foods , and drinks, and high-fat. diary products. They then created a similar menu that swapped highly processed foods for simpler, minimally processed options where possible.

​​​​The menu with less processed foods got 20% of its calories from minimally processed foods and the remaining 67% from ultra-processed foods; however, specific food details were not available at the time of publication.

The team then compared nutrient content and index scores for the two menus, as well as evaluating the cost and shelf life of certain foods to assess nutritional and socioeconomic outcomes.

Low or high processing, same poor nutrition

When it came to nutritional value, both diets received Healthy Eating Index scores of 44 and 43 out of 100, respectively. This is a relatively low score that reflects poor compliance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the press release.

The less processed menu was more than twice as expensive, with a cost per person of $34.87 versus $13.53 for the ultra-processed menu. The least processed food also had a shorter shelf life, with a median time of 35 days versus 120 days for the more processed options.

“This study shows that it is possible to eat a low-quality diet even when choosing food that is primarily processed,” Hess said.

Swapping processed foods for less processed options will not automatically improve nutrition. In fact, a previous study by Hess and her colleagues showed that a high-quality menu that meets the dietary guidelines is possible even when the majority of calories come from highly processed foods.

This study recommends not dismissing processed foods based on buzzwords alone, as this approach could have a negative impact on budget and nutrition. “The results of this study show that building a nutritious diet is more than a consideration of food processing as defined by NOVA,” Hess said.

For consumers, this means that a healthy diet needs to take into account the types of food and their nutritional value instead of focusing unnecessarily on their levels of processing.

Reference: Julia Hess, et al., unprocessed, but sad: The Standard American Diet Made with Fewer Foods is a typical American diet. Abstract presented at NUTRITION 2024, 29 June – 2 July 2024 in Chicago, IL, USA.

Feature image credit: White.Rainforest ™ ︎ ∙ 易雨白林 on Unsplash

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