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SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS: In praise of processed foods

A new study suggests that people shouldn’t be too judgmental about processed or ultra-processed foods, writes Sylvain Charlebois.
A new study suggests that people shouldn’t be too judgmental about processed or ultra-processed foods, writes Sylvain Charlebois. Tim Arsenault - The Chronicle Herald

Processed foods exist so we can save time, money and energy.

It has made our food systems more efficient over the years. It is all about convenience.

In recent years, though, the health attributes of processed foods have increasingly come under scrutiny for a variety of biased and unbiased reasons. Many reports by professional and interest groups have been unkind, causing many consumers to believe processed foods should be avoided at all cost.

A fascinating study published in Trends in Food Science and Technology looked at the underlying basis of the food classification systems used to determine what food is processed or not. Over 400 publications were screened for definitions of processed food.

The study argues that food classification systems used around the world, including Canada’s, were mostly designed to examine the relationship between industrial food products and health. It shows clearly that there is no consensus on what factors determine the level of food processing.

In fact, the concept of “processing” is considered by the authors of the study as a chaotic conception, largely concerned with technical processes. While Canada’s Food Guide recommends we stay away from ultra-processed foods, our classification system does not include quantitative measures but instead implies a correlation between industrial processing and nutrition. There is no direct relationship between processed food and nutritional value.

The anti-ultra-processing pundits will be quick to indicate those are the foods to be condemned and banned from the marketplace. This movement is largely motivated by a classification system called Nova. The study did not provide any clarity or justification for the use of the system. It looks at additives and other features associated with overeating, but it does not include proper nutrient profiling and other assessed nutritional aspects of food.

In essence, food processing is a complex issue. Although it has played an essential role in offering edible, safe and nutritious food, processing remains largely misunderstood.

Based on the study, we can only assume the rationale used by Health Canada to support Canada’s Food Guide and discourage Canadians from ultra-processed foods are not well articulated or evidenced. It argues that the subjective rhetoric often used by public health officials in nutrition is rather inappropriate for use in policy.

Processed foods have played an important socio-economic role in the last few decades. Some have argued that without them, gender inequalities would be more predominant. Knowing women have historically spent more time in the kitchen on average than men, women have been able to play a much larger role in our economy by having access to processed foods.

Many decades ago, most food processing occurred in the kitchen, accomplished largely by women. More needs to be done on gender equality, of course, but food processing has certainly not been an obstacle to our quest to have a more equitable society.

We need to make sure we avoid pompous misconceptions and properly educate ourselves on what food processing means. Many believe processed foods can only lead to a more obese and unhealthy society.

Some processed foods should not exist; nevertheless, processing has a particularly important economic role within our food systems. It reduces waste across the supply chain and allows food costs to remain at reasonable levels. In countries where access to technologies is limited, waste and price volatility at retail tends to cause challenges. Food processing provides stability across the food supply chain.

Instead of using guilt or value-laden terms, consumer understanding can only grow by appreciating the healthiness of food products we eat and buy. The study simply recommends we improve the scientific basis of food classification systems and support consumer understanding.

Otherwise, ideology and nutritional elitism will continue to mislead the public, and our policies will unceasingly misguide consumers in their food choices.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor in food distribution and policy, and senior director of the AgriFood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

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