Key points to remember
- Scientists have created a new online database to help users compare the level of processing of 50,000 food products in the US food supply.
- Studies show that eating “ultra-processed” foods can increase the risk of developing cancer and other diseases.
- The team behind the new database hopes it can help consumers understand what they eat and make more informed food choices.
You can search your pantry items on a new database, called TrueFood, to check and compare the nutritional composition and degree of processing of food products.
Over 70% of the US food supply is classified as “ultra-processed”, which is linked to a higher risk of cancer, depressive symptoms, and heart disease. Sodas, convenience foods, cereals, and breads all fall into this category.
Processed foods are whole foods that have been washed, cooked, chopped, anything that alters their natural state. The transformation itself is not necessarily unhealthy. For example, some “natural” orange juices are actually split into three different chemicals before being stored separately and remixed later, according to the researchers behind TrueFood.
However, ultra-processed foods usually contain little or no whole foods. They could involve chemical modification, recombination and the use of additives.
But it is not easy for consumers to know if a food product has been chemically modified by reading the product label. That’s where the research team behind TrueFood hopes to help.
“If you want to rent a car or book a hotel room, there are many tools that compare rooms and cars to help you select the best item. We still don’t have that available in the hotel industry. ‘groceries,'” Babak Ravandi, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University who helped develop TrueFood, said in an email.
Using machine learning, TrueFood’s algorithm assigns a number to more than 50,000 products based on processing level. While 0 is “minimally or unprocessed”, 100 is considered “highly ultra-processed”.
For example, Wedderspoon’s Raw Manuka Honey has a score of 99, while Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Popcorn has just 11.
The researchers also created an ingredient tree for each item, which can help users visualize the amount of processing involved. In theory, you could refer to the database while creating a shopping list.
Using the TrueFood Database
Elena T. Carbone, DrPH, RD, LDN, FAND, professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the database was easy to use and could draw attention to the amount of processing in foods labeled “natural” or “ORGANIC.”
However, TrueFood “could be more inclusive of a wider variety of foods that represent diverse populations,” Carbone said.
Rachel Fine, MS, RD, a New York-based dietitian, said her biggest concern is that the scoring system fosters a negative mindset around many of the included items.
“When we view foods as ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ we create this moral hierarchy around them, leading to feelings of food guilt and an overall suboptimal relationship with food,” she said.
The researchers said they hope the database will help users better understand what they eat. Otherwise, treatment information is “virtually unavailable” to the general public, according to Ravandi.
Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires companies to report data for about 12 different nutrients, compiling the data has been a challenge for researchers.
“Our perspective is not to push consumers to drastically change their diets and switch completely to fruits and whole foods,” Ravandi said. “We think even small changes could be very helpful, for example, ketchup is a highly processed product, but if a consumer switches from highly processed ketchup to a less processed version, that could be a big improvement.”
What this means for you
TrueFood is a free online tool that anyone can use. Some public health professionals believe this tool can help you make informed decisions about your diet. However, others think it might promote a harmful mindset around food. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Helpline.