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Published on February 29, 2024
University of Minnesota Expert Unpacks the Processed Food Puzzle During National Nutrition MonthSource: University of Minnesota

As we navigate the aisles during National Nutrition Month, the real skinny on processed foods is coming to light, with a helping hand from the University of Minnesota. Professor Job Ubbink, head of the Food Science and Nutrition Department, dispels myths and serves up facts on our daily diet dilemmas.

During an insightful Q&A with the University of Minnesota, Ubbink clarified that not all processed grub is villainous. "Unprocessed foods are often also called minimally processed foods," he explained, emphasizing that even fresh or frozen produce has experienced some level of processing. He noted the varying degrees of processing, from basic bread and cheese to ultra-processed items brimming with sugars and fats. But, it's not just about how much they've been processed—it's the high calorie and low nutrient content that really defines the junk food we should dodge.

Yet, there's more than one side to the story. Ubbink highlights the silver lining of food processing: "Food processing can provide specific nutritional benefits," such as lactose-free milk or more accessible antioxidants in tomato paste. However, it's not all beneficial. Over-refinement can strip away essential nutrients, and trans fats are now widely recognized as a health no-no.

For rural communities, processed foods play a crucial part in battling the elements and long distances. These staple items ensure pantries stay stocked, particularly when snowy conditions make a grocery run untenable. Ubbink pinpointed a challenge for these areas: "a concern are so-called food deserts", where limited access to a variety of food retailers means an unhealthy tilt towards those calorie-laden processed options.

Making wise choices at the market means loading up on fresh and minimal munchies first, and keeping a wary eye on the nutritional labels of processed picks, Ubbink advised. "Limit purchasing ultra-processed foods," he suggested, knowing full well the siren call of convenience they often embody. And, as for the wares of the University of Minnesota researchers, they're unpacking the nuances of ultra-processed foods, aiming to drive the food industry towards formulations that are nutritious from the get-go.

With a legacy steeped in bringing scientific strides to the public and nurturing future pioneers, the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) at the University of Minnesota keeps pushing the boundaries. Knowledge isn’t just cultivated in classrooms but is ripe for the picking across research centers, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and beyond. For a deeper dish on Ubbink’s insights into the processed food debate, visit cfans.umn.edu.