Highly processed foods dominate the U.S. grocery market

Highly processed foods dominate the U.S. grocery market

An analysis from The University of North Carolina on grocery purchases shows that highly processed foods dominate the U.S. grocery market, as they make up 60 percent of the calories that Americans buy. These highly processed foods usually have more sugar, fat, and sodium than foods that are less processed.

Many Americans have strongly held opinions and beliefs about processed foods,” said Jennifer M. Poti, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and leader of the study. “Some consider processed foods to be tasty, convenient and affordable choices while others contend that the combination of sugar, fat, salt and flavoring in these foods promotes overeating and contributes to obesity. But until now, we didn’t really have the evidence needed to settle this debate: No prior studies have examined whether highly processed foods collectively have a worse nutritional profile than minimally processed foods, using nutrition information and ingredient lists specific for barcoded food and beverage products.”

The research team followed 157,142 households from 2000-2012, and had them scan all their grocery purchases with a UPC barcode scanner. Households on average participated in the study for four years, and there was a total of about 1.2 million items purchased. The research team then gathered the nutrition information of each food item based on the barcode, and ranked them in terms of how much each was processed.

They categorized foods as highly processed if they contained multi-ingredient industrial mixtures. Some of the highly processed foods included chips, soda, white bread and candy.

Overall, we found that not only are highly processed foods a dominant, stable part of U.S. purchasing patterns, but also that the highly-processed foods that households are purchasing are higher in fat, sugar, and salt, on average, compared to the less-processed foods that they buy,” said Poti. “The unshifting dominance of ultra-processed and ready-to-eat foods as major calorie contributors to U.S. diet and their poor nutrient profile support the need to incentivize food manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their products.”

According to the analysis, processed foods make up about 61-62.5 percent. The researchers specifically found that there was an increase in consumption of frozen foods, which reached 15.2 percent in 2012.

Poti hopes that this research can lead to a more accurate use of the term processed food. “It is important that when we discuss processed foods, we acknowledge that many processed foods, such as canned vegetables or whole-grain breakfast cereals, are important contributors to nutrition and food security,” she said. “However, it is the highly processed foods — those with an extensive degree of processing — that might potentially be related to obesity.”

The study showing that highly processed foods dominate the U.S. grocery market will be presented at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2015.

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1. “Highly Processed Foods Dominate U.S. Grocery Purchases.” Newswise. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

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