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.
“Historically, we’ve tended to focus on one element of the equation at a time: salt or sugar or fat,” said Michael Moss, an investigative journalist and expert on the processed-food industry. “They could respond to one of those things pretty easily. But all three is quite difficult.”
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. They focused on breakfast cereals, yogurts, snacks, candies and frozen and refrigerated meals, which make up the bulk of sales of packaged foods.
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.