The American Society for Nutrition has a stated mission, which includes the following: “… to support the dissemination and application of nutrition science to improve public health.” Fair enough, but they recently released a position paper telling us that processed food products are an essential part of a healthy American diet.
Hearing this is as perplexing as reading some kids’ cereal labels plump with sugar, synthetic dyes, and preservatives, while the front side of the box assures us they are “an important part of a balanced diet.” On one hand, most adults realize that these kinds of questionable slogans are marketed simply to sell products. In this case, though, it's an official position paper from a mainstream nutrition organization we trust, as they said themselves, to “improve public health.”
The concern begins with the impressive list of conflicts of interest of the authors themselves: owning stock in ConAgra, McCormick, Hershey; consulting for various food and beverage companies; being paid by them to speak; and taking grant money from agribusiness giant Tate & Lyle.
Beyond these relationships, the article itself makes some unusual claims. It states that to assess the quality of processed foods, we shouldn’t compare their nutritious nature to that of whole foods. This is because (per the authors) the range of nutrients to compare is so broad that such a comparison would be “not useful.” In other words, they want taken off the table a comparison of real food versus processed food products.
To evaluate the health of processed food products, then, what should be compared? Only the many kinds of processed foods themselves. In doing this, the ASN article creates a false equivalence by asserting that all processed food products — from bread, cheese, and frozen peas, to Pop Tarts and frozen corn dogs dipped in aerosol spray cheese — are all qualitatively the same.
They can only do this by focusing on the number of vitamins and minerals added to the product. They do not mention the synthetic ingredients, additive sugars, or sodium. In other words, if a collection of dyes, sugars, and preservatives (returning to the example of common breakfast cereals) has a multivitamin in it, it is on the same nutritional level as fresh frozen vegetables or cheese.
This cartoon absurdity of normalizing bizarre food inventions is dangerous because it avoids obvious issues. No matter how margarine made with hydrogenated oil is fortified, it's still bad for your heart. The nutrient content of some prepackaged foods doesn’t make their sky-high levels of sodium and sugar suddenly good for you. Finally, eating the food preservatives they laud in this paper (including hydrogenated oil, nitrate/nitrite, salt, BHT, sodium benzoate) does not reverse the link they all have to some form of chronic disease.
And this is exactly what makes this position paper so antithetical to public health. Americans eat an estimated 150 pounds of sugar per person per year, and about 70 percent of that comes from processed food products. The CDC estimates that a mere 10 foods account for more than 40% of our sodium consumption. Defending the source of most sugar and sodium consumption, when a staggering two-thirds of our population ranges from overweight to morbidly obese, is anything but serving public health.
I do understand why agribusiness and the processed food product industry sugarcoat everything they say to the public about themselves and their products. But we all should expect that by now. What’s disheartening is being let down by an institution we trusted to give us straight advice. The American Society for Nutrition endorsed the views of processed food industry spokespeople, and allowed them to speak through the invisibility cloak of scientists writing for their organization.
The bottom line is that the position of this position paper is no better than the sugar-filled, neon-colored, processed food product breakfast cereals they defend. And, like these products, the ASN is in serious need of some fortification via one key ingredient our consumer public deserves: integrity.