But in recent years, the health attributes of processed foods have increasingly come under scrutiny for a variety of reasons, biased and unbiased. Many reports by professional organizations and interest groups have been unkind to processed foods, causing many consumers to believe that they should be avoided at all costs.
A fascinating study to be released in April, 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. Over 400 publications were screened for definitions of processed food.
The study argues that food classification systems used around the world, including in Canada, were mostly designed to examine the relationship between industrial food products and health.
The study shows clearly that there’s 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 that we stay away from ultra-processed foods, our classification system doesn’t include quantitative measures. Instead, it implies a correlation between industrial processing and nutrition. That’s right – there’s no direct relationship between processed foods and their nutritional value.
The anti-ultra-processing pundits will be quick to indicate that those are the foods to be condemned and banned from the marketplace. This movement against ultra-processed foods is largely motivated by a classification system called NOVA.
The study didn’t provide any clarity or justification for the use of the NOVA system. The system looks at additives and other features associated with overeating, but it doesn’t include proper nutrient profiling and other formerly assessed nutritional aspects of food.
Food processing is a complex issue. Although it has played an essential role in offering edible, safe and nutritious foods to all Canadians, food processing remains largely misunderstood.
Based on the study, we can only assume that the rationale used by Health Canada to support Canada’s Food Guide and discourage Canadians from consuming ultra-processed foods isn’t well articulated or evidenced. The study argues that the subjective rhetoric often used by public health officials about 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 processed foods, gender inequalities would be more predominant than they are now.
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 pre-processed foods. Many decades ago, most of the 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. This shouldn’t be forgotten.
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.
Certainly, some processed foods shouldn’t exist. But 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 for Canadians by using better technologies and knowledge.
In countries where access to technologies is limited, food waste and price volatility at retail tend to cause major 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 every day.
The study simply recommends that we need to improve the scientific basis for food classification systems and to 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.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.