The realities of processing’s impact on our food supply

Criticisms of so-called “ultra-processed” foods are largely missing the reason why food is processed in the first place: offering shelf-stable nutritional value at an affordable price, writes Megan Kastner, policy manager for product policy at the US Consumer Brands Association. The misconception that fewer ingredients means healthier food is scientifically incorrect and disregards the population with food sensitivities, Kastner adds.

Inevitably, while scrolling online you’ve undoubtedly seen at least some of what I consider the onslaught of recent coverage (largely opinion pieces thinly veiled as news) dedicated to the topic of “ultra-processed,” determined to demonise certain foods, and, therefore, the food choices consumers either want to make or need to make for their personal lifestyle.

The assertions — made in what largely feels like an effort to weigh in on the topic du jour — are so ridiculous, lacking not only in common sense but also in understanding and empathy for the variety of dietary needs many consumers face and budgets they’re balancing.

My work at Consumer Brands is on behalf of America’s household brands, and I believe too much “ink” and credence has been given to “ultra-processed,” a term that doesn’t have a consistent, science-based definition that also stands in direct opposition to established evaluations of foods based on nutrient composition.

Much of what I’ve read and seen in comment sections falls short of considering what processing is or how it enables continued access to affordable, nutritional, shelf-stable items. Nor does it raise the credible concerns of what would happen if access to processed foods is limited, including decreased diet quality, increased risk of food-borne illness, greater food waste, stigmatisation of critical foods such as fortified grains, plant-based proteins or infant formula and exacerbated health disparities.

Because of that, it’s time to get real about processing and what it does for our food supply:

Fewer ingredients are not always better

This is arbitrary to the point it’s practically satirical: We’ve seen the claim that foods should have just three ingredients. Not only is it an oversimplification to claim a food should be avoided based on the number of ingredients – why three ingredients? But different ingredients serve different functions, and many are intentionally added for nutritional and food safety purposes.

This claim alludes to a false dichotomy when the number of ingredients does not equate to nutritional value. It also completely undermines consumers with dietary restrictions – in cooking and baking, gluten acts as a binder that provides structure and elasticity to products — this is why you can mould a loaf of bread and it keeps its shape. Gluten also allows for increased moisture retention, prolonging the shelf life of products; to allow for a similar functionality in gluten-free products, often a host of ingredients are necessary.

Claiming that a random number of ingredients determines health benefits can leave anyone confused — including the millions of consumers who have ingredient sensitivities — when labels list a multitude of gluten-replacing ingredients like gums, psyllium, flax, chia and alternative flours.

Thickeners, stabilisers or emulsifiers are safe and highly regulated

Thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers are used to ensure food is agreeable to the palate – improving the sensory and nutritional profiles of foods, as well as helping to preserve foods. Food additives used in the food supply are highly regulated ingredients and regularly assessed and approved as safe for general consumption by leading food safety authorities such as the US FDA and the joint FAO & WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

To imply there’s a health concern with these additives goes against a slew of regulations to which food companies adhere. As noted above, a plethora of ingredients can be used to replace the functions of gluten, including xanthan gum. If gluten-intolerant individuals were to avoid this ingredient altogether, much of their diet would be eliminated.

Added sugars and sweeteners are transparent to the consumer

Nutrition and consumer transparency are leading priorities, not just among food and beverage companies but also for the federal government — and more specifically, the FDA. The development of the FDA-approved Nutrition Facts label was the result of a multi-decade effort of research and stakeholder input that guides our deeply personal nutritional choices today.

That is why added sugars are listed on the Nutrition Facts label. Additionally, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “ … a limited amount of added sugars can be included as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.”

The Guidelines also say “it is important to remember that added sugars [are] just one piece of information on the label. Looking at the ingredient list and reading all the information on the Nutrition Facts label can help you make the most informed choices.”

Taking it a step further, the industry has continued to evolve with consumer demand by updating the Facts Up Front style guide to include an ‘Added Sugars’ icon. Facts Up Front is a voluntary industry-led initiative that puts key nutritional information from the Nutrition Facts label right on the front of its food packaging.

Blanket vilifications of ingredients that end in ‘-ose’ fail a basic fact check

This, again, is an oversimplification as well as misleading to suggest ingredients that end in ‘-ose’ should be avoided outright. Fructose is a naturally found sugar in fruits and some vegetables, lactose is naturally found in milk and milk products, like cheese, and cellulose is found in plants. Even honey, which we’ve seen suggested as an alternative to sugar, is made up of fructose and glucose.

The same goes for undermining added sugars, which ignores globally-recognised scientific consensus

The WHO and FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) recently concluded that aspartame-sweetened foods and beverages “can be safely consumed daily over the course of an entire lifetime.” Low-and no-calorie sweeteners are also crucial to those with diabetes.

According to the FDA: “Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply. FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions. The sweetener is approved in many countries. Regulatory and scientific authorities, such as Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority have evaluated aspartame and consider it safe at current permitted use levels.”

“Could you make it in your kitchen?” is not a serious question

This claim, often flippantly proffered as a suitable alternative for everyone, assumes both ability and access to a kitchen, fresh products and the luxury of time for home-cooked meals.

Attempting to label foods with such subjective qualifiers simply because they are processed misleads consumers. Consumers deserve choices that meet their health and lifestyle needs and it shouldn’t be stigmatised; especially when food processing is critical for nutrition program participants, like those utilising SNAP and WIC. Claims like that (“can you make it in your kitchen?”) also assume said consumers don’t live in food deserts and have around-the-clock access to in-season fruits and vegetables.

Source: Consumer Brand Association