The processed food debate

January 22, 2016

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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

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"The percentages of children and adults with total usual nutrient intakes that would fall below the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) without fortified foods were sizeable." — Johanna T. Dwyer, DSc, RD1

The discussion about processed foods has been a hot topic lately.  The term "processed food" has become synonymous with "unhealthy."  One of the most frequently feared and avoided foods by my clients with eating disorders is what they coin "processed food," although few people can actually define what that means. 

This fear is perpetuated not only by the media but also by the scientific and medical community who throw around the term loosely (and IMHO irresponsibly) in a way that misleads consumers. 

So what is a processed food?  Nearly everything you put in your mouth has undergone some level of processing, which is defined as any deliberate change in a food that happens before it's available to consume.   The level of processing is a spectrum.  Foods such as fruits and vegetables are typically considered "minimally processed" (so still some level of processing) when they are washed and packaged.  From there the level of processing increases as ingredients are combined (e.g. jarred sauces, spice mixes, cake mix), or the food might be cooked (e.g. rotisserie chicken), frozen (e.g. frozen entrees, frozen pizza), or served ready-to-eat (e.g. protein bars, yogurt, peanut butter, breakfast cereal).

One of the greatest advances in food processing has been the enrichment and fortification of food.  Enrichment is when nutrients that were lost during processing are put back in the food, such as B vitamins in bread.  Fortification is the addition of nutrients that weren't originally present in the food, such as calcium in orange juice. 

Dwyer et al. did a search of the International Life Sciences Institute, North America (ILSI-NA) database and found the following1:

  • 100% of Americans would fall short of the EAR for vitamin D
  • 79% would fall short for vitamin A
  • 50% for thiamin
  • 90% for folate (This is significant due to the risk of neural tube defects in babies.)

And this was just in North America.  Think about the rest of the world where food isn't as abundant and the fortification and enrichment of the food supply gives them key nutrients they otherwise wouldn't get.  Many people in 3rd world countries would be blind without vitamin A fortified rice. 

I am personally grateful for processed food and choose to consume foods from the entire spectrum of processing.  I also don't believe that demonizing processed food helps our population eat healthier.  In fact, I challenge that it sets up a cycle of depriving ourselves of food we want, then overconsuming it, followed by guilt and return to deprivation.  A vicious cycle to break out of.  A cycle often seen in disordered eating and eating disorders. 



1. Dwyer, JT. Trailblazer Lecture: Why Are Processed Foods So Controversial.  J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;111:1871-1876. 

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