Are Processed Foods Getting Healthier?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Are Processed Foods Getting Healthier?

Good news! Food is trending back to basic. We’re in the midst of a transition where food companies are revamping traditionally “unhealthy” foods and food outlets to suit consumers’ increasing demands for things like fewer artificial additives and less antibiotic use in livestock. In other words, “healthy” seems to be more mainstream and, for the most part, it’s a cause for celebration.

What’s the Trend?

According to Nielsen’s survey polling 30,000 people in over 60 countries, consumers today demand fresh, minimally processed foods and they’re willing to invest in food—1 in 4 of people surveyed were willing to pay a premium for it. This whole foods trend is powerful and, one after another, major food companies are scrambling to win over customers. A few recent, notable announcements include:

  • Hershey announced in 2014 that it’ll remove high fructose corn syrup in its York peppermints and Almond Joy bars, and replace it with sugar.
  • Kraft plans to replace synthetic coloring (yellow 5 and yellow 6) in its iconically golden mac & cheese with natural color (think turmeric, paprika, annatto) by January 2016.
  • McDonald’s announced in March 2015 that it will stop using chicken raised with antibiotics in its products, which prompted Tyson Foods, a large meat supplier, to announce they will eliminate antibiotics from their poultry supply.
  • Panera announced that by 2016, it will drop a long list of ingredients from its foods, including artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and certain sweeteners. Check out their no-no list.
  • Taco Bell announced that, by 2017, it will provide more food choices using simpler ingredients and fewer additives.
  • Amy’s Kitchen, a popular organic frozen foods and soup company, revealed plans for opening a fast food restaurant to serve food made from 95% certified organic ingredients.

Are all Additives Bad for Me?

Terms like “artificial flavor,” “synthetic color” and “preservative” are vague and get thrown around a lot. But what do they really mean, and are they all that bad? Most companies who are removing these ingredients say they’re doing so simply because of consumer demand—not because the ingredients are inherently unhealthy. Whether or not removing an ingredient is helpful to you and me depends on two things: 1) What ingredient are we talking about exactly, and 2) What are they being replaced with (if at all)?

Certain ingredients simply shouldn’t be in food since there is evidence that they might cause human harm. Yellow numbers 5 and 6 and Red 40 account for 90% of the dyes used in foods, but they contain benzidine, a human and animal carcinogen allowed in low (supposedly safe) levels in dyes. According to FDA calculations, free benzidine increases cancer risk to a “concern” threshold of “1 cancer in 1 million people,” but these dyes contain bound benzidine. Sadly, as part of the digestion process, bound benzidine can be converted into free benzidine, possibly making our exposure greater than originally expected. Even assuming that cancer risks are low for these dyes, I wouldn’t want them in my food, especially if their sole purpose is color appeal.

Unlike artificial food dyes, some additives show evidence of human harmfulness, but serve an important function. For example, there’s evidence that nitrites/nitrates added to processed meats can increase your risk for cancer, but these additives also protect us from potentially fatal foodborne illness caused by bacteria in these meats. In this instance, if you wanted to minimize exposure to nitrites/nitrates, then you’d need to eat less processed meat. Overall, it’s probably not a wise decision to remove nitrites/nitrates from the food supply.

Then, of course, watch out for the old bait and switch that’s typically done with added sugars. Companies claiming to shift away from using high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) commonly replace it with sugar, which isn’t very helpful. Both HFCS and sugar contribute to “added sugars”—they’re both similar in composition and in the way our bodies handle them.

Want to learn more about individual additives to weigh their potential risks and benefits? Check out sites like Noshly and the Environmental Working Group.

What’s the Takeaway?

The trend of major food companies producing minimally processed foods with shorter ingredient lists is a positive one. We’re happy to see food companies jumping on the bandwagon to make their products healthier, and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future of processed and fast foods. In the meantime, there’s no sufficient replacement for reading the ingredients list, nutrition facts panel and good old homecookin’!

How do you feel about the trend towards minimally processed foods with shorter ingredient lists? Share your thoughts below.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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