Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households?

Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;101(6):1251-62. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100925. Epub 2015 May 6.


Background: "Processed foods" are defined as any foods other than raw agricultural commodities and can be categorized by the extent of changes occurring in foods as a result of processing. Conclusions about the association between the degree of food processing and nutritional quality are discrepant.

Objective: We aimed to determine 2000-2012 trends in the contribution of processed and convenience food categories to purchases by US households and to compare saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content of purchases across levels of processing and convenience.

Design: We analyzed purchases of consumer packaged goods for 157,142 households from the 2000-2012 Homescan Panel. We explicitly defined categories for classifying products by degree of industrial processing and separately by convenience of preparation. We classified >1.2 million products through use of barcode-specific descriptions and ingredient lists. Median saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content and the likelihood that purchases exceeded maximum daily intake recommendations for these components were compared across levels of processing or convenience by using quantile and logistic regression.

Results: More than three-fourths of energy in purchases by US households came from moderately (15.9%) and highly processed (61.0%) foods and beverages in 2012 (939 kcal/d per capita). Trends between 2000 and 2012 were stable. When classifying foods by convenience, ready-to-eat (68.1%) and ready-to-heat (15.2%) products supplied the majority of energy in purchases. The adjusted proportion of household-level food purchases exceeding 10% kcal from saturated fat, 15% kcal from sugar, and 2400 mg sodium/2000 kcal simultaneously was significantly higher for highly processed (60.4%) and ready-to-eat (27.1%) food purchases than for purchases of less-processed foods (5.6%) or foods requiring cooking/preparation (4.9%).

Conclusions: Highly processed food purchases are a dominant, unshifting part of US purchasing patterns, but highly processed foods may have higher saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content than less-processed foods. Wide variation in nutrient content suggests food choices within categories may be important.

Keywords: convenience food; diet; food processing; processed food; ultra-processed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Beverages
  • Carbohydrates / analysis
  • Data Collection
  • Diet / trends*
  • Energy Intake
  • Family Characteristics
  • Fast Foods*
  • Fatty Acids / analysis
  • Food Handling*
  • Logistic Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Nutritive Value*
  • Sodium, Dietary / analysis
  • United States


  • Carbohydrates
  • Fatty Acids
  • Sodium, Dietary