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"Buffeted by changing consumer demands and concerns over the health effects of excess salt and sugar, the world’s largest food companies have tried to make their products more healthful. Many have promised to reduce sodium and added sugars. Others have removed artificial colors and additives. But a new, peer-reviewed government report suggests these tweaks have not made packaged foods more healthful overall: While sodium and sugar have decreased in many products, there’s been a surge in the amount of saturated fats, which raise blood cholesterol. Experts say the contradictory trends speak to the immense difficulty of reformulating packaged foods — even at the world’s most advanced food companies. General Mills, Kraft, Nestle and many others have struggled to make foods more healthful while also maintaining price and taste...The new report, published by the Agriculture Department in November, shows that companies have made uneven progress on their nutrition goals. In the case of some products, the authors write, it is “not clear” whether foods touting new health claims “are healthier overall.” To reach that conclusion, USDA economists examined the nutritional content of thousands of new and revamped food products that entered the marketplace between 2008 and 2012 and compared them with existing products...When it came to salt, sugar and fat, the trends were clear. Sugar content has either fallen or remained the same across all five food categories. Sodium content has fallen in all five categories except one — frozen meals — where it’s up slightly. But saturated fat, which the American Heart Association calls a contributor to cardiovascular disease, has increased a statistically significant amount in cereals, yogurts, snacks and frozen meals. Candy, the one category where the researchers did not observe an increase, does not contain fat in significant quantities...Reducing the sodium and sugar in a product almost inevitably leads to a higher fat content, said Ryan Dolan, chief operating officer of PTM Food Consulting. The company helps food manufacturers — including Kraft Heinz, ConAgra, and Kellogg’s — develop healthier versions of their products. Dolan likens a product’s nutrition to a pie chart, with slices for nutrients such as sugar, fat, protein and other carbohydrates. If a food company makes one slice smaller, and keeps the product weight the same, the other slices necessarily have to expand. “So any time you focus on decreasing one nutrient, you increase the others,” Dolan said. Whatever the cause, experts agree the report’s findings show how difficult it can be to improve packaged foods. That’s why Dolan and Pete Maletto, PTM’s president, encourage companies to consider the entire product during reformulations, rather than specific ingredients, such as sugar. The best way to develop a nutritious product, they argue, is to focus on using fewer ingredients and moderate amounts of salt, sugar and fat. “Otherwise, at the end of the day, you’re just exchanging one bad ingredient for another,” Maletto said. “And consumers don’t think like that anymore. It’s a different world.”"

Posted December 6th, 2017
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