Everything to Know About the Rise of Processed Foods in the United States

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Picture the typical American pantry. It’s filled with sugary breakfast cereals, salted potato chips, jarred sauces, and maybe a few canned vegetables. The fridge and freezer likely aren’t much better; while there may be fresh fruits and vegetables, the freezer likely has frozen pizzas, heat-and-eat dinners, ice creams, and other microwavable foods that might be frosted over with freezer burn.

What do all of these foods have in common? They’re processed, meaning they’ve been altered in some way from their original state of being. While processed foods can be relatively healthy (think: roasted nuts, cut vegetables, or flash-frozen fruits and veggies), other processed foods can include many additives. For example, some jarred sauces or salad dressings include ingredients added for flavor and texture, as well as to preserve the ingredients for longer. Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers or deli meat, and frozen meals tend to be the most heavily processed.

However common processed foods might be now, it wasn’t always this way. Here, learn more about the history of processed foods and how they came to be a staple in the American diet, plus how processed foods have impacted our lives.

The History of Processed Foods

Processed foods have technically existed for centuries (for example, olive oil, cheese, and noodles were all processed and main staples of ancient diets). However, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, large-scale food production and processing were introduced (partly to help feed growing military forces). Hermetic bottling was developed in 1809, a technique that would eventually lead to tinning and canning. Louie Pasteur discovered pasteurization in 1864, which majorly improved the quality and safety of processed food.

Later, after World War I and a major influenza pandemic, European food production became focused on food that was nutritionally dense and rich in protein to fight malnutrition and disease. This development in food science continued to speed up later in the 20th century, with advancements such as freeze-drying, juice concentrate, artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, and preservatives that essentially created a new category of food. At the same time, kitchen appliances such as blenders and microwave ovens made it convenient — and even cheap — to eat these processed foods.

Today, convenience reigns king among those searching for a good meal, a trend that began in the 1950s as housewives and working mothers prioritized fast and affordable meals for feeding their families (the traditional TV dinner being one of those meal options). From fast food to meal delivery services, processed foods check many of the boxes Americans are searching for in their diets.

Why Processed Foods Continue to be Popular

At first glance, the popularity of processed foods seems to be fairly simple. After all, they’re cheap, high in calories, and easy to buy, store, and keep for a long time — whereas fresh fruits and vegetables may be more expensive, lower in calories, and harder to get.

However, the main reason processed foods remain a staple in diets is because of marketing. The fast food industry spent $5 billion on advertising in 2019, an increase of over $400 million since 2012. A disproportionate amount of this advertising targets Black and Latino youth. In addition, food companies spent $11 billion on television ads in 2017, and 80 percent of that (about $8.8 billion) was spent on their processed offerings such as soda, fast food, candy, and snacks.

Processed foods have also made a practice of exploiting the term “healthy” in their marketing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates terms that food companies use on their packaging, defining the criteria by which companies can use phrases such as “low-fat,” “low-calorie,” and more. However, the definition of the term “healthy” hasn’t been updated since 1994, when any food labeled “healthy” was decided to have limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium; to qualify, foods must also provide at least 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber. Under these definitions, foods widely regarded as nutritious (including olive oil, nuts, salmon, and avocado) could not be labeled “healthy.”

However, in September of 2022, the FDA issued a proposed update to the rule, which, if passed, would emphasize healthy dietary patterns by requiring that food products contain a certain amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines, 2020-2025 in order to be labeled “healthy.” The proposed regulation would also require a food product to be limited in certain nutrients, including saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

The Impact of Processed Foods

As processed foods have become a mainstay in American diets (in fact, consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased over the past two decades across nearly all segments of the U.S. population), they’ve irrevocably changed our physical health. Processed foods are a contributor to the obesity epidemic and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. That’s because many highly processed foods feature ingredients such as saturated fats, added sugar, and sodium. Also, it’s been estimated that ultra-processed foods contribute about 90 percent of the total calories obtained from added sugars, in addition to being stripped of their nutrients.

But aside from how processed foods impact our physical health, they also sever our connection to our natural world and the food we’re meant to eat. Could you name at least three ingredients in any of the foods mentioned in the first paragraph? And if you could, would they be actual food that your grandmother would recognize, or are they strange compounds and chemicals with multi-syllable names like ethyl maltol, dextrose, or maltodextrin?

Processed foods may be convenient in the short-term, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the physical effects of relying on these foods will catch up with our health in the long run. Instead of filling your grocery cart with processed foods, prioritize fresh, organic produce and farm-raised proteins that your grandparents would recognize — and learn to enjoy the ritual of preparing your meals with your own two hands, no factory processing allowed.