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U.S. food supply has way too much processed stuff

Americans are over-exposed to products that are high in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and salt, a new study reports.

The United States packaged food and beverage supply in 2018 was ultra-processed and generally unhealthy, according to the study.

Since about 80% of Americans’ total calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages (packaged and unpackaged), the food and beverage supply plays a central role in the development of chronic disease including obesity and cardiovascular disease.

The study aims to provide new information for consumers, researchers, and policymakers to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate or replace unhealthy products and to inform the US government about where action may be necessary to improve the healthfulness of packaged food and beverages.

“To say that our food supply is highly processed won’t shock anyone, but it’s important that we hold food and beverage manufacturers accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers,” says lead author Abigail Baldridge, a biostatistician in the department of preventive medicine at the  Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “And the verdict is they can and should be doing a whole lot better.”

Breads and bakery

Ultra-processed food and beverages “are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins),” according to the NOVA Food Classification System developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. The foods are derived from hydrogenated fats and modified starch, and synthesized in laboratories.

For the study, scientists analyzed 230,156 products and, using the NOVA Classification System, found 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks, and more were ultra-processed. Among the top 25 manufacturers by sales volume, 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.

“Bread and bakery products” was the only category consistently among the highest third across all four nutrient categories in terms of nutrient levels (calories, saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium).

Compared to other western countries like Australia, the US food supply is similarly healthy but more processed with higher median sugar and sodium content, the study finds.

Experts routinely update dietary guidelines, but no such regular surveillance or reporting on what is available on grocery shelves is available to consumers, researchers, or policy makers. Changing the food supply must start with properly assessing it, Baldridge says.

“Food and beverage products continuously evolve, and reports like these highlight opportunities to make critical changes within specific manufacturers or product categories to reduce saturated fat, salt, and sugars,” she says.

This evaluation can occur either by manufacturers replacing or reformulating the food and beverage products, Baldridge says.

What’s on supermarket shelves?

“Our team has previously shown that breads, in particular, have 12% higher sodium content in the US in comparison to the UK, where national sodium-reduction strategies have contributed to lowering sodium levels in packaged foods,” Baldridge says.

The scientists analyzed data Label Insight collected that represents more than 80% of all food and beverage products sold in the US over the past three years.

Collecting data on the packaged food and beverage supply is difficult because it is so large and about 20% of packaged foods in the US turn over every year, Baldridge says.

“We need to better capture real-time information of our constantly changing food supply if we’re going to track and improve its healthfulness,” says coauthor Mark Huffman, a professor of health policy, an associate professor of preventive medicine and medicine, and a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine.

Healthy food app

To that end, the study team last summer launched the US version of FoodSwitch, a mobile phone app that allows consumers to scan packaged foods to determine their healthfulness. If a product doesn’t exist in the app’s 268,000-product database, then the app asks the user to crowdsource the information by uploading photos of its barcode, nutritional label, and packaging to update the app’s database of foods.

The scientists in this study ranked foods based on their healthfulness number defined by a Health Star Rating system, which scores packaged foods between 0.5 stars (unhealthiest) to 5 stars (healthiest) to provide a quick look at the nutritional profile of packaged foods. They focused specifically on whether products were ultra-processed or not, and compared healthfulness and level of processing product categories and leading manufacturers.

The study appears in the journal Nutrients.

The American Heart Association; Verily and AstraZeneca through the One Brave Idea program; the JR Alberts Foundation; and the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Science Institute funded the work.

Source: Northwestern University