Trouble with the Term “Processed”

March 31, 2015 in General, Health, Health Claims, Nutrition, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

I attended Utah Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2015 this past Thursday and Friday. Personally, I believe that it was the best conference, with the most informed presenters that this state organization has offered. One of their presenters was Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN. She had an engaging, appealing and enjoyable presentation style. To begin with, she explained her background as a farmer’s daughter; she’s even named her business Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, LLC. The youngest of five children, she grew up in Northeast North Dakota, with her wheat-growing family. Eventually her father and some of her brothers moved to growing canola (rape seed) and soybeans. She has a business, based upon her well-developed presentation skills and 20-plus years of working with the food industry including the American Beverage Association; The Culinary Institute of America; Innovation Center for US Dairy; McDonald’s, Northern California Owner-Operators Cooperative; Monsanto Company; and Northarvest Bean Growers Association. In addition, she has received honoraria from many organizations including the Dairy Council.

I wouldn’t normally want to share much information from someone so closely tied to the food industry, but she was instrumental in starting a thought process that I felt was worth sharing with all of you out there in Internet land. In addition, I sat in the freezing convention room, enamored with her warm and fuzzy, farmer’s daughter background. But let’s be clear about my state of mind; I was not in a coma. I knew/know that the organizations that she works for are among the biggest, most powerful in the food industry. What I enjoyed was seeing how captivatingly and charmingly their side, the other side of my coin of whole, minimally processed foods can be presented. Unfortunately, the charm and captivation leaves the important questions unanswered.

Her talk was an hour and I don’t have the time to write about all of her presentation but I’ll share a couple of issues that I found very interesting.

  • First, I want to share the view she presented regarding processed foods. She had a slide with six pictures of foods. The foods that were presented under the title of Processed Foods were: peanuts; a beautiful piece of fresh salmon; a glass of milk, next to an old-fashioned quart bottle of milk; a small pile of walnuts; a stack of potato chips and lastly a sliced apple with skin on, next to a small plastic container of caramel sauce.

The picture of processed foods that she displayed was to help us identify processed foods. The peanuts were shelled and roasted; the salmon was filleted and portion cut; the milk was pasteurized, homogenized, and vitamin D added (I must say I felt slightly manipulated to see the old-fashioned quart bottle that I have not seen since I was a girl – a long time ago.); the walnuts were shelled; the potato chips were sliced and cooked; and the apple was sliced and served with caramel sauce. So the argument is that if you want to eat nuts, apples, salmon and milk then you are probably going to be eating processed foods.

Can we say, “minimally processed?” I must admit that I sat there and wondered where the more highly processed food examples were. I was looking for pictures of canned soups; canned sauces; whipped dairy topping; refined flour pasta, spaghetti ‘o’- style canned pasta, bread, crackers, chips, cakes, muffins, cookies; energy/health bars (see next paragraph), cereal; foods with artificial food coloring; hot dogs, chicken nuggets; soda pop and energy boosting/caffeine containing drinks and shots; Cheetos; frozen lasagna and other frozen meals; and on and on.

Just for fun I looked up the ingredient list for the Atkins Advantage Bar, an example of a highly processed product:

Ingredients: Chocolate Flavored Coating (Polydextrose, Palm Kernel Oil, Whey Protein Isolate, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali), Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium), Peanut Butter Flavored Layer (Maltitol, Palm Kernel and Palm Oil, Peanut Butter, Partiallly Defatted Peanut Flour, Nonfat Dry Milk, Whey Powder, Peanuts, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Anhydrous Milk Fat, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali), Glycerin, Protein Blend (Soy Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate, Sodium Caseinate), Peanuts, Hydrolyzed Gelatin, Water, Polydextrose, Peanut Butter (Ground, Roasted Peanuts), Cellulose, Natural and Artificial Flavoris, Palm Kernel Oil, Olive Oil, Clarified Butter, Soy Lecithin, Guar Gum, Vitamin Mineral Mix (Tricalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Magnesium Oxide, Vitamin A Palmitate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Sodium Ascorbate, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), DL-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Niacinamide, Biotin, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Zinc Oxide, Folic Acid, Chromium Chelate, Phytonadione (Vitamin K1), Sodium Selenite, Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12), Salt, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid, Sucralose, Mono and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate.

As an alternative to this bar, why not pack some peanuts; eat a chocolate kiss and take a multi-vitamin? You wouldn’t need to add the cellulose and all the other ‘stuff.’ It’s very hard for me to consider this bar as food. It surely fails the test questions on whether it is a real food described in Pollen’s Book Food Rules, but it qualifies for our website’s definition of “fude.”

  1. Why should we care if we’re eating a load of highly processed foods?
  2. Because they tend to have more fat, sugar and salt than less-processed foods; and they have minimized whole foods, which can spoil, resulting in less shelf life, returned product from stores, and thus lower profits. All that processing is designed to increase profits not get whole natural food into your mouth.

A new study out of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led by Jennifer M. Poti, Ph.D, has found that highly processed foods make up more than 60 percent of the calories in the U.S. grocery purchases. Poti reported on the findings at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2015 this past week, ahead of the publication of the study. They found that highly processed foods collectively have a worse nutritional profile than minimally processed foods. The researchers classified products as highly processed if they contained multi-ingredient, industrially formulated mixtures. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, dried beans and fresh meat were classified as unprocessed or minimally processed. In addition to finding that highly processed foods were a dominant, stable part of U.S. purchasing patterns, they also found that they contribute to purchasing foods higher in fat, sugar and salt than compared to the less-processed foods.

One of the outcomes of the study was the identification of the need for a more careful use of the term processed food. It’s the highly processed foods, which are believed to be potentially related to obesity. They frequently are hyper salty, sweet, fatty and flavorful and entice us to eat more calories than we need.

The FDA has a definition of a “processed” food; it is any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling. So with this very broad definition, let’s face the need for substantial educational efforts. Much more work needs to be done to help consumers identify what highly processed foods are and why we may want to avoid them entirely; or, at the very least, consume them infrequently.

Amy Myrdal Miller told an interesting and “Crazy Consumer Story.” The story involved a “Mommy blogger” visiting the plant where the apple slices and diced apples used by McDonald’s are made. The Apple Dippers, as they’re called, are peeled apple slices that are dipped in ascorbic acid to prevent browning. The “Mommy blogger,” as described by Mrs. Miller, said something about how awful it was that they were putting acid on the apples and immediately started texting her friends while still on the plant tour. Mrs. Miller tried to help the “Mommy blogger” realize it was nothing more than vitamin C. It made a great story for dietitians, who, of course all knew that ascorbic acid was the scientific name for vitamin C. But certainly there was no mention that the peels are removed and this processed food, while a big improvement over French fries, may not be as healthy as giving an actual apple, that you’ve sliced and tossed in a little lemon juice yourself, preserving the skins. The point is that most of the dietitians probably think that Micky D’s is taking a big step in the right direction; I know, I do. Clever advocate Miller chose another example of processing we would all agree with. We shouldn’t worry about a little vitamin C or lemon juice on an apple, even though peeled. But she didn’t give examples of highly processed foods, and the levels of processing for many of so-called foods, I believe contain plenty of cause for concern.

Can we tell the difference between canned tuna or salmon and hot dogs, bologna and chicken nuggets? I hope so. Yes, both groups are processed; the difference is how highly processed the food is. It’s nice if we can eat closer to nature; but certainly busy people don’t all have the time involved to cook everything from scratch. But some of the highly processed foods will not be nutritionally missed from you diet. I’m thinking of gummy bears, Goldfish, Twinkies, Froot Loops, and so on. Maybe a little less of the highly processed and designer foods in our diet will help move us toward filling up on real fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It may ultimately provide us will some extra hours, by replacing time spent at the doctor’s office.

Sometimes I find a minimally processed product that we really enjoy. In the past few months I’ve been using a frozen edamame; the ingredient list says this: Organically grown and processed soybeans in pods; no salt – I like that. I can add salt if I like; and control how much is on the product. Learning which processed foods add to our well being and which don’t is going to be a process.

We need to learn how to identify highly processed foods. I believe that the length of the ingredient list and what’s in the list are often a big clue to how highly processed the item is. Do you ever cook with cellulose, or all the weird scientific names of the ingredients in the list of foods? Then maybe, you should try something simpler. Also, if you’re trying to use almost exclusively whole grain products, it often eliminates many of the highly processed items. How many ingredients need to be in the box of cereal that you want to feed your child? Maybe a bowl of whole grain oatmeal (minimally processed – a roller goes over the whole grain) would be a better choice.

  • Second, another point in Miller’s presentation that I don’t want to forget to mention is that she was talking about soybeans. She told a touching story about how her brother with six little children needed to provide for his family. I know my heart goes out to anyone working hard to provide for his family. The story was about the Monsanto GMO Roundup ready soybeans that he uses to grow his crop. She meekly asked him about why use them; in essence, the response was that he would wear out his farm equipment fast if he did not use Roundup – too much weeding – very hard on the equipment. He could not re-sell his farm equipment for much and it would take money from the family. So here we are between a rock and a hard place. We want his family to be fed and we want our families to be free of carcinogens. It turns out that Roundup has carcinogens. What’s the answer? Just the week before the convention, I had read that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the France-based cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, said that the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup is “probably a carcinogen.”

Back to the cold conference room. I wanted to ask about the new report; but was vacillating between being a Grinch in a room filled with admiring and entertained dietitians; when someone else asked the question. The answer was shared that proportionally much less Roundup is used by a professional farmer than a person would use in their yard. I have read reports of Monsanto’s GMO seeds making the plants immune to insecticides. The insects evolve and become resistant to the bug poison. More and more insecticide is needed, not less. Weeds evolve too. I have to doubt the long-term truth of her claim that less is used.

It’s important for us to look at our foods. We need to consider if we’re getting the components of real food, when we eat. Is there too much sugar, salt and fat? Are we getting enough phytonutrients and fiber from real produce; good sources of protein, carbohydrates and fat? Are we getting too much simple carbohydrate, and a select few added vitamins and minerals. It may be important to our health to take some time with labels to determine this. I think it will take years and many court battles before labels can really tell us if a food is too highly processed to be depended upon for frequent inclusion in our diet. Until then, it’s a good idea to begin paying attention to the labels and to use our common sense.