While traditional dietary guidelines have focused on nutrient composition, recent studies have shifted emphasis away from nutrients to consider the effect of food processing on energy intake and body weight. Some countries have proposed guidelines to avoid highly processed foods completely, but there is a lack of consensus on the role of processed foods in promoting health while ensuring a sustainable food supply.
It is against this backdrop that Dr. Ciarán Forde, Professor and Chair of the Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour group at the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University, delves into the categorization of food according to its level of processing and the consequential effects on human health.
In his new publication Prof. Forde highlights the challenges of addressing growing rates of chronic diseases, food insecurity, and environmental concerns and the fact that processed and packaged foods are an integral part of the modern food supply and will continue to be consumed.
While some highly processed foods are known to promote excess intake, the majority offer consumers an affordable source of nutrients and energy and processed and packaged foods are currently estimated to comprise over 60% of the products available in our supermarket shelves. Products high in energy density, added sugar or saturated fat or that can be consumed at a rapid rate, are known to increase consumer risk of diet-related chronic conditions such as obesity or type-2 diabetes, and reducing consumption of these nutrients has long been the basis for food based dietary. However, limiting people’s access to processed foods entirely is likely not the solution, and efforts to restrict access through taxes are likely to be regressive and would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable consumers in society. Simply categorizing foods as “processed” or “unprocessed” is will not inform healthier choices and encouraging consumers to avoid processed food is more likely decrease rather than increase the nutrient density of consumer diets. Furthermore, calls for additional taxes and tighter regulations on processed foods should consider the economic realities and consumers’ ability to make informed decisions. Instead, Prof. Forde proposes the focus should be on understanding the specific properties of foods that are likely to promote overconsumption, and explore new strategies beyond reformulation, such as considering how sensory cues affect the rate and extent of energy intake.
Food processing and formulation techniques serve a wide range of different functions that cannot be lumped together under a blanket term, and advances in processing and have secured consumers access to safe, affordable and nutritious foods and reduced the environmental impact of food production. Future dietary strategies need to consider the planetary impact of food production, nutritional properties, and equitable access to a safe and affordable food supply. The current processed food debate has re-focused attention on the need to improve food production methods to reduce environmental impact, and ensure nutritional adequacy for the growing global population.
In summary, the article emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach to understanding the role of processed foods in human health. It calls for comprehensive research on the effects of processing techniques, consideration of environmental impact, and the promotion of informed consumer choices while ensuring access to safe and nutritious foods.
The publication at the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society can be accessed at this link:https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665123003014