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About 80 percent of American total calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages. Food and beverage supply plays a central role in the development of chronic disease.

Northwestern University researchers conducted a study aimed at providing new information for consumers, researchers and policymakers. It's important to encourage manufacturers to reformulate or replace unhealthy products. The study is intended to inform the U.S. government about where action may be necessary to improve the healthfulness of food and beverages.

To say the food supply is greatly processed won’t shock anyone. It’s important food and beverage manufacturers are held accountable by continually documenting how they’re doing in terms of providing healthy foods for consumers. The verdict is they can and should be doing a lot better.

Ultra-processed food and beverages are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods. Such substances are oils, fats, sugar, starch and proteins, according to the NOVA food-classification system. That system was developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Foods are often derived from hydrogenated fats and modified starch, and synthesized in laboratories.

For the Northwestern University study more than 230,150 products were analyzed. Using the NOVA system 71 percent of products were found to be ultra-processed. Breads, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets and sugary drinks were among the main ultra-processed foods. Among the 25 largest manufacturers by sales volume, 86 percent of products were classified as ultra-processed.

Dietary guidelines are routinely updated. But no such regular surveillance or reporting on what’s available on grocery shelves is available to consumers, researchers or policymakers. Changing the food supply must start with properly assessing it.

Food and beverage products continuously evolve. There are opportunities to make critical changes within specific manufacturers or product categories to reduce saturated fat, salt and sugars. But collecting data on packaged foods and beverages is difficult because the supply is so large and evolving. Capturing real-time information of the constantly changing food supply is important if the healthfulness of food is to be improved.

The study recently was published in “Nutrients.” Visit www.mdpi.com and search for “baldridge” for more information.

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Abigail Baldridge, the study’s lead author, is a biostatistician in the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University-Feinberg School of Medicine. Contact abigail.baldridge@northwestern.edu for more information