Objectives: To describe the contribution of highly processed foods to total diet, nutrient intakes and patterns among 27 redefined centres in the 10 countries participating in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).
Methods: Single 24-hour dietary recalls were collected from 36,034 individuals (aged 35-74 years) using a standardized computerized interview programme (EPIC-SOFT). Centre-specific mean food intakes (g/day) were computed according to their degree of food processing (that is, highly, moderately and non-processed foods) using a specifically designed classification system. The contribution (%) of highly processed foods to the centre mean intakes of diet and 26 nutrients (including energy) was estimated using a standardized nutrient database (ENDB). The effect of different possible confounders was also investigated.
Results: Highly processed foods were an important source of the nutrients considered, contributing between 61% (Spain) and 78-79% (the Netherlands and Germany) of mean energy intakes. Only two nutrients, beta-carotene (34-46%) and vitamin C (28-36%), had a contribution from highly processed foods below 50% in Nordic countries, in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, whereas for the other nutrients, the contribution varied from 50 to 91% (excluding alcohol). In southern countries (Greece, Spain, Italy and France), the overall contribution of highly processed foods to nutrient intakes was lower and consisted largely of staple or basic foods (for example, bread, pasta/rice, milk, vegetable oils), whereas highly processed foods such as crisp bread, breakfast cereals, margarine and other commercial foods contributed more in Nordic and central European centres.
Conclusions: Highly industrially processed foods dominate diets and nutrient patterns in Nordic and central European countries. The greater variations observed within southern countries may reflect both a larger contribution of non/moderately processed staple foods along with a move from traditional to more industrialized dietary patterns.