Processing level and diet quality of the US grocery cart: Is there an association?

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Objective: The majority of groceries purchased by US households are industrially processed, yet it is unclear how processing level influences diet quality. We sought to determine if processing level is associated with diet quality of grocery purchases. Design: We analysed grocery purchasing data from the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey 2012-2013. Household grocery purchases were categorized by the NOVA framework as minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods or ultra-processed foods. The energy share of each processing level (percentage of energy; %E) and Healthy Eating Index-2015 (HEI-2015) component and total scores were calculated for each household's purchases. The association between %E from processed foods and ultra-processed foods, respectively, and HEI-2015 total score was determined by multivariable linear regression. Foods purchased by households with the highest v. lowest ultra-processed food purchases and HEI-2015 total score <40 v. ≥60 were compared using linear regression. Setting: USA. Participants: Nationally representative sample of 3961 households. Results: Processed foods and ultra-processed foods provided 9·2 (se 0·3) % and 55·8 (se 0·6) % of purchased energy, respectively. Mean HEI-2015 score was 54·7 (se 0·4). Substituting 10 %E from minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients for ultra-processed foods decreased total HEI-2015 score by 1·8 points (β = -1·8; 95 % CI -2·0, -1·5). Processed food purchases were not associated with diet quality. Among households with high ultra-processed food purchases, those with HEI-2015 score <40 purchased less minimally processed plant-foods than households with HEI-2015 score ≥60. Conclusions: Increasing purchases of minimally processed foods, decreasing purchases of ultra-processed foods and selecting healthier foods at each processing level may improve diet quality.

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Public Health Nutrition