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Minimally processed foods cost more and offer no extra nutrition

A recent study offers fresh insight into the debate about ultra-processed and minimally processed foods. It suggests we rethink our approach. Instead of just looking at how processed our food is, we should focus on the types of food we eat.

This enlightening study is from the reputable USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center.

A team of passionate scientists, led by Dr. Julie Hess, worked hard to challenge our current beliefs about food processing.

Minimally vs ultra-processed foods

The researchers contrasted two diets reflective of typical Western consumption.

One consisted of minimally processed foods, while the other composed of ultra-processed foods, as defined by the NOVA classification system.

Surprisingly, the minimally processed diet was more than twice as expensive. It also had a shorter shelf life. Additionally, it didn’t provide any extra nutritional value.

“This study indicates that it is possible to eat a low-quality diet even when choosing mostly minimally processed foods,” Hess explained.

“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 costly.

Twist in the tale

The Soy Nutrition Institute Global‘s director of nutrition science and research, Mark Messina, Ph.D., is scheduled to present these breakthrough findings at the NUTRITION 2024.

This study is a sequel to their earlier work, revealing that a high-quality menu aligning with dietary guidelines can predominantly consist of ultra-processed foods.

This time, the scientists flipped the script, asking, “Could a low-quality menu be largely comprised of ‘simple’ foods?”

Reality check

The researchers composed a less-processed menu, acquiring 20% of its caloric content from ultra-processed foods. On the other hand, the more-processed menu received 67% of its energy from ultra-processed foods.

Both menus scored roughly 43-44 on the Healthy Eating Index, a regrettable score indicating inadequate adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The less-processed menu set back consumers by $34.87 per day per person, in stark contrast to the $13.53 per day for the more-processed menu.

The median expiration time for the less-processed and more-processed menu items varied drastically as well, with figures standing at 35 days and 120 days, respectively.

Understanding minimally processed foods

Julie Hess underlined that nutrient-dense packaged foods, including unsweetened applesauce, ultrafiltered milk, liquid egg whites, and certain brands of raisins and canned tomatoes, could be classified as ultra-processed.

“The results of this study indicate that building a nutritious diet involves more than a consideration of food processing as defined by NOVA. The concepts of ‘ultra-processed’ food and ‘less-processed’ foods need to be better characterized by the nutrition research community,” she concluded.

This study serves as a wake-up call, encouraging a holistic approach that goes beyond considering food processing levels, including minimally processed foods, to examining the nature of the foods we consume.

Implications for public health policies

The findings from this study could change public health policies and nutritional guidelines. Current advice favors minimally processed foods.

This research suggests that focusing only on processing levels might miss the full picture of diet quality.

Public health authorities might need to rethink their recommendations. Some ultra-processed foods can be healthy and offer benefits like cost savings and longer shelf life. Policies should promote nutrient-rich foods, regardless of their processing level.

Approach to nutrition

This study highlights the need for a personalized approach to nutrition. Instead of avoiding ultra-processed foods entirely, focus on including a variety of nutrient-dense choices.

This way, you can balance your diet while considering your individual needs.

Consider factors like affordability, convenience, and individual dietary needs. Nutrition professionals can offer tailored advice for each person’s situation.

This approach can lead to better, more effective nutrition strategies, improving public health outcomes.

Implications of minimally processed foods

One key takeaway is the need to educate the public about nutrition. We need awareness campaigns and educational programs to inform people about food processing and its health impacts.

When people have accurate nutritional information, they can make better diet choices. Schools, community centers, and healthcare providers can help spread this knowledge effectively. By working together, we can help everyone make healthier food choices.


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