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By Sally Smithwick, Health & Wellness Content Contributor

It is no secret that fresh, unprocessed quality foods are the ideal source for nutrients that support our health. However, for the more than 34 million Americans that are food insecure, this is simply not a realistic approach to putting food on the table. But the USDA has some good news for your shoppers that have limited budgets. Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service have explored building a healthy diet with 91 percent of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods (as classified using the NOVA scale) while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

In the press release, ARS Research Nutritionist, Julie Hess, at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, said, “The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option. According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of a food and its place in a food group are more important than the extent to which a food was processed.”

The NOVA system has four food categories: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods. Foods are grouped according to the nature, extent and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo. These involve physical, biological and chemical techniques used after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or else made into dishes and meals.

Scientists created a menu of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks making up 2,000 calories a day for seven days, using MyPyramid as a guide. Using foods that are NOVA rated as ultra-processed, the researchers were still able to meet DGA recommendations such as servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy.

According to GroceryDB, 73% of our food offerings in the US are ultra-processed. In addition, according to a study published in Frontiers in Nutritionmore than 60 percent of caloric intake in the U.S. comes from ultra-processed food. There are four nutrients that are considered public health concern, according to the Dietary Guidelines. Potassium, calcium, dietary fiber, and Vitamin D are under consumed by Americans.

Here are a few examples of ultra-processed foods that have more to nutritionally offer than most shoppers probably realize, especially when it comes to the nutrients American seem to be missing the most. 

  • Kroger brand black cherry yogurt can meet 25% of the recommend daily intake of calcium and 10% for Vitamin D.
  • Kroger brand High Fiber Chew Bars Oats & Chocolate offer 29% of the recommended daily intake of fiber.
  • Simply Orange All Natural Juice contains 20% of the recommended daily intake of calcium and 10% of potassium needed. Or Simply Orange Calcium and Vitamin D fortified orange juice contains 35% of the recommended daily intake of calcium and 25% of Vitamin D needed.
  • Simple Truth 90 Second Black Pepper 100% Whole Grain Brown Rice with Ancient Grains contains 28% of the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber.
  • Healthy Choice Spicy Black Bean & Chicken Power Bowl contains 25% of the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber, 10% of calcium needed, and 15% of potassium needed. On top of that, this product has 20g of protein and 25% of needed Vitamin C.

Some processed foods are better than others. And with a little guidance, consumers can learn what to look for on those labels that lets them know if a product contains a meaningful level of nutrients. Many food companies have been making positive changes to their offerings such as fortifying their products or lowering sugar, fat and sodium. This is an important study for supermarkets and retail dietitians serving customers working with tight food budgets and highlights the versatility of using DGA recommendations in constructing healthy menus.

Details of the study were published in The Journal of Nutrition by Julie M. Hess (USDA-ARS), Madeline E. Comeau (USDA-ARS), Shanon Casperson (USDA-ARS), Joanne L. Slavin (University of Minnesota), Guy H. Johnson (Johnson Nutrition Solutions, LLC), Mark Messina (Soy Nutrition Institute Global), Susan Raatz (University of Minnesota), Angela J. Scheett (USDA-ARS), Anne Bodensteiner (University of North Dakota), Daniel G. Palmer (USDA-ARS).

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