CHICAGO – The Institute of Food Technologists’ IFT FIRST in-person annual convention took place July 10-13 after a two-year pandemic hiatus. The education program commenced with a debate centered around, “Should we eat more processed foods?”

On the pro-processed foods side, Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute, New York, cautioned against the use of labels, including food classification systems such as Nova, which was developed by School of Public Health at the University of Säo Paulo in Brazil where it is currently in use. The system classifies foods into four groups according to their level of industrial processing, from unprocessed/minimally processed to ultra-processed. 

“Words matter,” Ms. Webb said. “We are in logical overload. Our brains crave order so we default to labels. Labels validate our cherished beliefs, even if the beliefs are wrong.”

That “wrong” was exemplified by an example of a commercially produced sprouted seed, whole grain bread. The product under the Nova system is labeled ultra-processed. Yet, it offers more nutritional benefits than a minimally processed baked brioche.  

Ms. Webb’s argument for eating “more” processed foods focused on how food technology can make our global food supply healthier and more sustainable. Food processing is the best way to feed growing human populations while also reducing food waste. The “more” for Ms. Webb is not about more junk food, but more better-for-you choices to provide intentional benefits, for the consumer and the planet.  

Michael Gibney, emeritus professor of Food and Health at University College Dublin, another supporter of more processed foods, said “you can’t make plant-based foods without processing and processing aids.” Opponents to eating “more” processed foods argued that such foods are associated with obesity and related health ailments.

Kevin Hall, PhD, senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Md., presented research on why he believes we should consume less processed foods. The NIH conducted an experiment with 20 men and women, who were on a diet of ultra-processed foods for two weeks and then a diet consisting of no foods deemed ultra-processed for two weeks. The nutrients of concern were the same in both diets. 

Mr. Hall found that when the group was on the ultra-processed food diet, they ate an average of 500 more calories per day than when they followed the diet with no ultra-processed foods. Consequently, they gained weight and body fat.

Future research will examine the mechanism that drives consumers to eat more ultra-processed foods. He also made a disclaimer that not all ultra-processed foods are created equal and that “we need ultra-processed foods, but we don’t need to eat them more.” 

Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Emerita at New York University, would like to see all ultra-processed foods go away but recognized that will never happen. 

Mr. Hall understands that processing enables the development of nutritionally beneficial food products. At the same time, however, there may be unintentional consequences. He cited the example of how margarine introduced trans-fatty acids to the marketplace. 

The debate ended with moderator John Donvan, author and correspondent at ABC News, recognizing that processing foods provides the intentional benefit of feeding the growing population. He summarized the pro side is all about more “good processed foods” while the con side is pushing for less “bad processed foods.”

Antithesis Foods Inc., Ithaca, NY, made its debut at IFT FIRST in the show’s Startup Pavilion. The company is focused on making processed foods healthier. 

“We develop nutritionally dense low-calorie alternatives to classic crunchy snacks and ingredients, all based on legumes,” said Jason Goodman, chief executive officer. “If it crunches, we make it healthier.”

Founded in 2017, Antithesis Foods was started by Mr. Goodman and Ashton Yoon, chief operating officer, who were then both graduate food scientists at Cornell University. They were united by their shared passion for using science to address critical problems in the food system. 

“At Antithesis, we thrive on solving problems, care deeply about food and nutrition, and aren’t afraid to do the antithesis of the norm,” Ms. Yoon said. “Our products are low in calories, net carbs and sugar, yet high in fiber and protein. We use ingredients like chickpeas and other pulses, which are highly regarded by experts in nutrition and sustainability.” 

The company sampled gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and pita chips, both having chickpeas as the lead ingredient. There also were two better-for-you toppings —strawberry dots and vanilla crumbles — made with resistant starch and a pulse protein blend.