Definitions are important to understanding concepts, but there is no clear definition for what constitutes ultra-processed food, said Julie Hess, PhD, research nutritionist at the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, who spoke Tuesday at an IFT FIRST scientific and technical forum addressing the role of food science in public health and nutrition policy.
This can lead to unfairly classifying healthy foods such as canned salmon, yogurt, canned green beans, and canned peaches as ultra-processed, potentially putting them in the same category in the public mind as French fries, chips, and candy, Hess said. Consumers' fear of processed and ultra-processed foods can be overcome by explaining what unfamiliar ingredients and processes are and why they are important to safeguard the nutritional content and safety of food, she maintained.
Diets that are high and even very high in ultra-processed foods can provide the necessary micronutrients and macronutrients for health, Hess contended. It's the details that matter. Many ultra-processed foods are nutrient dense, she pointed out.
There is plenty of confusion among consumers about processed foods, added Chin-Kung Wang, PhD, distinguished professor at Chung Shan Medical University. For instance, he pointed out: "Cooking is processing. We need to identify food processing and the importance of food processing, preservation, and so on." It is nearly impossible, Wang noted, to eat only "original food." Simple, explanatory messaging is needed to educate the public about what constitutes processed foods and their healthful qualities.
For it to do anybody's body any good, first food "has to be liked, affordable, available, accessible, safe, and efficient," said session co-host Maria Velissariou, PhD, founder, Maria Velissariou Consulting LLC and managing director, Kirchner Group - Innovation, Growth, Development.
"And also acceptable," added session co-host Anna Rosales, RD, senior director, government affairs and nutrition at the Institute of Food Technologists. "We have to consider what's acceptable" to consumers. "We have to meet consumers where they are. Nutritionists and food scientists alike can help consumers understand how to create a dietary pattern that fits their lifestyles, their needs, and their health."
Taking that tack a step further, Rosales added, "We can educate the consumer to make the right choices, but we can also produce products that make the right choices for them." The industry has the power to make it easy for consumers to eat healthfully by providing them delicious, nutritious food—at scale—she emphasized. "I understand what food science can do to can take nutrition and bring it to scale. You have the power as food scientists to do this. We [nutritionists and food scientists] can do it together."
Nutritionists and food scientists have a shared interest in promoting public health, but also, they have different types of expertise and should work together to find solutions, Hess agreed.
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