Throughout history, food processing has played a critical role in building a safe, accessible, healthy and sustainable food system. More recently, there has been growing criticism and confusion among health professionals, researchers and media regarding the benefits associated with the consumption of processed foods, especially against the evolving scientific discourse around ultra-processed foods.
During this podcast episode, Phil Lempert interviews food scientist Eric Decker, Phd, about the historical role processed foods have played to ensure we have a safe, accessible, healthy and sustainable food system. Dr. Decker describes the benefits and techniques of food processing and highlight how it can improve compliance to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Lastly, Dr. Decker shares insights that retail dietitians can use when communicating with consumers about processed foods.
Welcome to Lost in the Supermarket. This podcast episode is a collaboration between the Retail Dietitian's Business Alliance and Potatoes USA, the nation's potato marketing and research organization representing more than 2,000 potato farming families. Potatoes USA is committed to providing the nutrition community with evidence based information about the role of potatoes in healthy lifestyles throughout history, food processing has played a critical role in building a safe, accessible, healthy, and sustainable food system. But there's also been a lot of growing criticism and confusion among health professionals, researchers, and media, regarding the benefits associated with the consumption of process, the foods , especially against the evolving scientific discourse around ultra processed foods. Today, we're gonna seek some clarity. Our guest is Eric Decker , PhD , professor department of food science college of natural sciences at the university of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr . Decker's actively conducting research to characterize mechanisms of lipid oxidation, antioxidant protection of foods and the health implications of bioactive lipids. He is listed as one of the most highly cited scientists in agriculture today. Dr. Decker welcomed to Lost in the Supermarket.Eric:
So first off, let's get some definitions here. What is food processing and how is food processing different from processed food?Eric:
So food processing is really any changes that happen to the food once they leave the farm. So it could be as simple as peeling something or chopping something and food processing that's done in factories. Many times. It's not really different than what we , when we cook our food at home. So processing includes all different kinds of things , uh , that we do at home . Like when we , our , our vegetables or we cook our meat and, and these same, what we call unit operations in the industry are done in factories, but they're just done on a much larger scale. And many times they're, they're much more efficient than what we can do at home. So they're actually more sustainable than, than our home cooking purchases .Phil:
So is our problem really nomenclature more than anything else that, that the word processing is really , um , not understood by the average shopper?Eric:
Yeah, I mean, there's a , there's a lot of advantages to processing. Uh, the processing makes our food safer. It actually makes our food more easily to , to digest. It can help make vitamins and minerals more bioavailable , um, and processing on large scale helps decrease food costs for a lot of different. So we're actually quite lucky that our, the amount of money that we spend on food in the us is now less than 10% of our disposable income. And it's one of the lowest in the world. And a lot of that happens because of the efficiency of the processing system .Phil:
So, you know, you're talking about processing in , in large facilities. Um , how, and has it evolved , um, over, over, you know, the past century, if you would , uh, from when the first person, you know, decided to, to move it. And I don't know if it was Clarence bird's eye or whoever it was , um, actually said, okay, I can do this in a large scale. How has it progressed? Um , over the past decades?Eric:
Yeah, I think, you know, a hundred years ago, 150 years ago, people spent about 80% of their day putting food on the table and, you know , one really good example, there would be bread, right? It , it takes a long time to make a low for bread. I mean , if you have to make every day you're spending , that's why you're spending so much time. So a lot of the initial process foods that came out were about convenience. They were about making it easier to put food on the table . So just things like , uh , uh , processed, breads , and thes that we find in the store now make our life much , much easier cereals kind of followed with that. And then you started to get into to more things like canning and preservation methods, which made foods available all year round and also decreased a lot of food waste. So, you know, if you think about straw season , if you know, when strawberries are ripe, we got a couple weeks to , to take advantage of those strawberries. And by processing , assessing those strawberries by freezing them or making 'em into jam making 'em in another products, we can now have those be available the year round . So, so I think those were probably some of the early , uh, introductions and , and even at world war, I was very important in terms of people processing more and more food because of food shortages. And so that's really when the food science started, it was about right around world war. I , uh , as we started to educate people, the safe way to process foods.Phil:
So earlier, you know, you had mentioned , um, that food processing could help digestion. Um , what are some other ways that food processing can deliver healthier food options to consumers?Eric:
Yeah , so , so the , the three , the three rules of thumb and how consumers , uh , pick their food and how they decide what food to purchase is the three A's it's it's affordability, accessibility, and acceptability. So, so the first thing that any food manufacturer, any restaurant anybody needs to do is they need to make sure the food taste it . And so, you know, and then hopefully they need to make it affordable and they need to make it easy for people to get to make , go bad and things like that. Um , so there's a lot of different ways that , which we've been able to process certain foods to hit the three A's and still be nutritious. So I think a really good example would be things like whole wheat breads and all eat breads by themselves. You know, have bitter flavors may not have the same textures and do different processing operations and different food ingredients. We can make those much more acceptable. And then if they're acceptable to people, then they're more accessible. So if you have , if you have a food that's not acceptable, no matter how healthy it is , it's not gonna be incorporated into the diet. And so if we can make whole wheat bread more palatable, keep it affordable, then we can get this healthy food product to many more people .Phil:
So you mentioned safety , um , as it relates to, to food , um, we've all experienced having , uh , whether it's that whole wheat bread or any other food that we leave on our counter, we look around and a week later , um, we see mold growing on it and so on. Um , what, what role does food processing have in giving a safe food supply?Eric:
So one of the first things is that , uh, the , the food processing companies do a lot of monitoring on their product , the raw material that comes in and the product that goes out to make sure there aren't pathogens in there . Uh , the second thing is they have what's called, has plants . And these plans make to make sure that there's different steps in the process that will kill any bacteria that would be in there that could potentially make you sick. Um, so through those combinations of, of monitoring and doing proper processing, we can make sure that we're not , um , we're not selling and consuming a lot. That's gonna make people sick .Phil:
If there is one major misperception that you would like to correct , uh, both for consumers, as well as, you know, retail, dietitians, what would that be?Eric:
So you mentioned ultra processed foods early , and I think there's a lot of confusion in this area. And, and the reality is that the whos that are called ultra processed , they aren't unhealthy because of the way they're processed. They're unhealthy because of their composition. So many of these foods are what we have thought of for a long time is junk foods, high and sugar, high, and fat, high, and sodium. And there's a lot of food products that are in the grocery store that, that meet this kind of junk food definition. So I think it's unfortunate that processing has been associated with unhealthy cause there's a lot of benefits to processing that aren't reflected in this ultra process food term that's used.Phil:
So if you, if you could , um, be in charge of the Miriam Webster dictionary , um, you would strike out the, that word ultra processed .Eric:
Yeah. I think ultra formulated would be a better word, right? It's how the food is formulated and think about it when you cook at home, it's the same thing, right? You can use ingredients, you can use make products with lots of sugar or lots of fat in them , and those are not gonna be healthy. And so, so the same thing is true in the store. You can find products that aren't high in sugar, aren't high in fat, aren't high in sodium. And, and you can find a lot of processed foods , uh , that are very healthy and very important part of our diet.Phil:
So lastly , um, you know, our audience of retail, dietitians who work in supermarkets across the nation are talking to, you know, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of, of shoppers every day. Uh , what advice can you give them on how to best communicate with consumers about processed foods?Eric:
Yeah, I think, you know, it's more important to look at the nutritional composition of the food and , and , and to try to incorporate more food groups, which we know have health benefits. So we know very few of us eat enough fruits and vegetables every day . Very few of us eat enough whole grain products. Very few of us eat enough diet fiber . So it's really, you know, I think the important thing is, is to focus on those healthy ingredients, try to limit the consumption of the empty nutritionally, the , the foods that are not nutritionally dense, you know, the ones that are high in sugar, salt, and fat, and don't have a lot of other. And , and I think, you know, for me, eating a wide variety of a food is also of foods is also very important. Uh , this that will help you get all the nutrients you need.Phil:
Dr . Decker, thanks so much for adding some clarity to a very complicated subject. Thank you for all your work and thank you for joining us today on Lost in the Supermarket.Eric:
Sure. Thanks .