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Better processing the benefits of processed food
Created on 7/22/2021 8:48:57 PM

Written by Michael Graydon, CEO of Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada
Published on April 19, 2021

“Processed foods” are often sensationalized and painted with a broad brush, but a new study published in April by the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology may bring some helpful new perspectives. The study questions common assumptions about processed food and presents an opportunity to look at food processing in a more objective way than is often the case.

The study examined more than 100 scientific papers covering 400 food classification systems around the world, including Canada’s own Food Guide, and found that the definition of processed food is far from settled. Lead researcher Christina Sadler said, “Currently, terms surrounding processed food are not consistently defined and can mean different things to different people, limiting how these terms can be used effectively in policies or advice.” 

Canada’s Food Guide, for example, advises consumers to avoid “ultra-processed foods” (a phrase derived from one food classification system developed in Brazil) implying that a food’s level of processing leads to different health outcomes, despite a lack of evidence that the two are related without respect to the food’s nutrient content or an individual’s overall diet.  

Dr. Sadler’s study found that many food classification systems similarly fail to include measurements of nutritional content, despite the fact that “nutritional content and processing do not have a linear relationship and these concepts need to be disassociated.” 

As food historian Rachel Laudan puts it, “human food is processed food.” Nearly all foods must be processed in some way to be consumed. From chopping to cooking, from canning or freezing to portioning into serving sizes - processing turns raw ingredients into finished foods that can be consumed fresh or stored safely.  

Preparation (food processing) can be performed in your kitchen or elsewhere, but the processes themselves do not dictate the nutritional content of the finished product or its place in balanced diets. The authors of the Trends in Food Science and Technology study point out “ that is homemade is not automatically a healthier choice.” 

To truly help consumers build and maintain balanced diets, we should focus not on processing itself, but on the availability of a diverse range of foods that meet the needs of a diverse range of consumers. Some foods, homemade or otherwise, are treats; others should be consumed more frequently and in larger quantities, depending on consumers’ individual nutrient and energy needs. 

Packaged and prepared foods of all kinds bring great benefits for food safety, convenience, affordability, access, and more. Commenting on the recent study, Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois noted that food processing can help save time, reduce waste, and keep food affordable. 

It is a welcome change to see academic studies calling for greater objectivity and consistency in research and policy development related to the products so many Canadians and consumers around the world enjoy every day.