A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that consumers in the US still gravitate towards purchasing heavily-processed “convenience” foods over natural products. “Processed foods” were defined by the authors as any foods other than raw agricultural commodities, and were categorized by the extent of changes occurring in the product as a result of the processing. Processed foods are treated in some manner to extend their storage life or improve their taste, nutritional value, color or texture. Unfortunately, many food processing treatments significantly reduce the nutritional quality and biochemistry of the original raw food. For example, bleaching wheat flour has been shown to destroy at least 22 known essential nutrients in the original grain.
The investigators of the current study analyzed purchases of packaged goods for 157,142 households from the 2000-2012 Homescan Panel. They defined categories for classifying the products by the degree of industrial processing and convenience of preparation. Over 1.2 million products were included in the analysis via the use of barcode-specific descriptions and ingredient lists. Surprisingly, the researchers found that US consumers purchased a whopping 76.9% of all their foods (calories) in the form of moderately- or highly processed during the review. This trend was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012. When classifying foods by convenience, ready-to-eat (68.1%) and ready-to-heat (15.2%) products supplied the majority of daily calories. The analysis shows that highly-processed food purchases are still a dominant, unshifting part of US purchasing patterns even though it is well known that these foods have higher quantities of undesirable content like sugar when compared with less-processed foods. Unfortunately, strong economic and cultural factors drive nutritional decisions within the US population – factors that make the habit of consuming processed foods hard to break.