Researchers used machine learning to develop a searchable database of 50,000 grocery items to help users compare nutrition and processing levels. Key TakeawaysScientists created a new online database to help users compare the level of processing across 50,000 food items in the U.S. food supply.Studies show that consuming "ultra-processed" foods can increase the risk of developing
You can look up your pantry items on a new database, called TrueFood, to check and compare the nutritional composition and degree of processing in food products.
More than 70% of the U.S. food supply is classified as "ultra-processed," which is linked to a higher risk of cancer, depressive symptoms, and heart disease. Sodas, ready-made meals, cereal, and bread all fall into this classification.
Processed foods are whole foods that have been washed, cooked, chopped—anything that alters their natural state. Processing in itself is not necessarily unhealthy. For example, some "natural" orange juices are actually divided into three different chemicals before being stored separately and remixed later, according to the researchers behind TrueFood.
However, ultra-processed foods typically contain little to no whole foods. They could involve chemical modification, recombination, and the use of additives.
But it's not easy for consumers to know whether a food product has been chemically altered from reading the food label. That's where the research team behind TrueFood hopes to help.
“If you want to rent a car or book a hotel room, there are many tools out there that compare rooms and cars to help you select the best item. We still don't have that available in the grocery industry,” Babak Ravandi, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University who helped develop TrueFood, told Verywell in an email.
Using machine learning, TrueFood's algorithm assigns a number to more than 50,000 products based on the level of processing. While 0 is "minimally or unprocessed," 100 is considered "highly ultra-processed."
For example, the raw manuka honey by Wedderspoon has a score of 99, while Cheetos Flamin' Hot popcorn is only 11.
The researchers also created an ingredient tree for each item, which may help users visualize the amount of processing involved. In theory, you could refer to the database while you're creating a grocery shopping list.
Elena T. Carbone, DrPH, RD, LDN, FAND, a nutrition professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the database was easy to use and it could bring attention to the amount of processing in foods that are labeled "natural" or "organic."
However, TrueFood "could be more inclusive of a wider variety of foods that represent diverse populations," Carbone said.
Rachel Fine, MS, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian, said her biggest concern is that the scoring system promotes a negative mindset around many of the items included.
"When we view foods as 'bad' or 'good' we create this moral hierarchy around them, leading to feelings of food guilt and an overall suboptimal relationship with food," she said.
The researchers said they hope the database would help users better understand what they eat. Otherwise, information about processing is "virtually unavailable" to the general public, according to Ravandi.
Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires companies to report data for about 12 different nutrients, compiling the data was a challenge for the researchers.
"Our viewpoint is not to push consumers to drastically change their diet and switch completely to fruits and whole foods," Ravandi said. "We believe even small changes could be very helpful, for example, ketchup is a highly processed item, but if a consumer switches from a highly processed ketchup to a less processed version, it could be a big improvement."
TrueFood is a free online tool that anyone can use. Some public health professionals believe this tool can help you make informed decisions about your diet. However, others think it could promote a harmful mindset around food. If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Helpline.