How Many Processed Foods Americans Consume

Why Processed Foods Are a Bigger Problem Than You Think
Photo: Pond5

Are you eating too many faux foods? We’re referring to those packaged goods in your grocery store that certainly didn’t come straight from nature to your plate. Well, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, people in the U.S. are getting a whopping 60 percent of their calories from highly processed foods like soda, cookies, snack foods and candy.

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In a large study conducted between 2000 and 2012, researchers asked people in 157,143 households to use UPC barcode scanners to record every item they purchased over the course of a year. Researchers divided the foods into four categories: unprocessed (fresh or frozen fruit, vegetables, meats), basically processed (sugar, oil, flour), minimally processed (salted nuts, fruits canned in syrup) and highly processed (desserts, sodas, cookies, candy). “We defined highly processed foods as multi-ingredient goods that are not clearly recognizable as [coming from] a plant or animal food source,” says UNC assistant professor and lead researcher Jennifer Poti, Ph.D.

Perhaps most surprising: People’s habits haven’t changed much over the years — even as more information has become available to the public about the benefits of eating clean. “Many things occurred between 2000 and 2012, but what Americans were buying remained fairly stable,” Poti says.

Why Processed Foods Are a Bigger Problem Than You Think
Photo: Pond5

Why Processed Foods Might Be Bad News for Your Health

So how dangerous are processed foods, really? Well, the research is mixed. “Recent studies have come out suggesting processed foods are nutritionally important, and suggesting that processing level is not a major determination of nutrient contributions to diet,” Poti says. “But other [studies] are saying highly-processed foods are higher in sugar and sodium, making the hypothesis that they can promote overeating, or lead to weight gain and obesity.” Researchers hoped to get to the bottom of this controversy using the data from this study.

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If you’re a frequent visitor to the soda or snack food aisles of your grocery store, the news isn’t good. “We did find, on average, purchases of highly processed foods were higher in saturated fat, sugar and sodium compared to household purchases of less processed foods,” Poti says. “…We should consider whether these foods with unfavorable nutritional profiles are promoting overeating or potentially leading to weight gain, or obesity.” However, Poti acknowledges that processed foods have a wide range of nutritional content — and that some may be better for your health than others. 

How to Shop Smarter

The results of this research aren’t all grim — there were some small, positive changes in people’s purchasing patterns, too. Unfortunately, people just seemed to turn to new processed foods to take the place of ones they eliminated. “We saw decreases in purchases of refined bread, grain-based desserts, candy and ice cream, and decreases in margarine and shortening purchases,” Poti says. “To balance those out, we saw increases in frozen grain, pastas, rice-based dishes, frozen pizza and frozen meals.”

There were also increases in purchases of fresh fruit, and decreases in the numbers of people taking home items like sugar, or refined white-grain flour, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages. Perhaps the most noticeable shift was that people began purchasing more ready-to-eat, or frozen meals over time — perhaps as a substitute for fast food meals, Poti says. This could be a good thing, or a bad thing for health, depending on the types of meals chosen.

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The key lies in choosing the right processed foods. “We did see within the highly processed foods that there was wide variability in sugar content and saturated fat content,” Poti says. “A household could buy a lower calorie frozen meal that has more vegetables and lower sodium content…We do feel like there’s definitely an ability within highly processed foods to change what households are purchasing to a more favorable nutrient profile.”

Beyond that, Poti recommends shifting from highly processed foods to minimally processed foods, like nuts, fruits, veggies and whole-grain pastas and breads, when possible. Your mission: Bid adieu to the middle aisles of the grocery store, and start shopping that perimeter, where the fresh foods reside.

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