Purchases of highly processed foods lower among African-American and Hispanic households than among white households, study finds

July 27, 2016

A new study from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health found that, compared with white households, both African-American and Hispanic households had lower total purchases of highly processed and ready-to-eat convenience foods. Their overall grocery store purchases of packaged foods had differing nutritional qualities, as well.

Dr. Jennifer Poti

Dr. Jennifer Poti

The study researchers, all from the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition, are lead author Jennifer M. Poti, PhD, research assistant professor, Michelle A. Mendez, PhD, assistant professor, Shu Wen Ng, PhD, research associate professor, and Barry M. Popkin, PhD, W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor.

The full study was published online July 27 by the Journal of Nutrition.

“Our findings indicate that purchases of highly processed foods were lower among African-American and Hispanic households than among white households, which is the opposite of what is typically assumed about racial and ethnic nutritional disparities,” Poti explained. “We also found that highly processed foods and convenience foods could not explain the racial and ethnic disparities in the nutrient content of overall grocery store food purchases, which also is contrary to what most people assume about processed foods.”

The researchers used the 2000–2012 Homescan Panel, which followed 157,142 U.S. households that scanned their grocery store purchases of packaged foods and beverages. Using repeated-measures regression models (adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics), the investigators examined associations of race and ethnicity with purchases of processed and convenience foods, expressed as a percentage of total calories purchased. The investigators also estimated associations between race and ethnicity and the saturated fat, sugar and energy density of total purchases.

Compared with white households, African-American households had significantly lower purchases of highly processed foods (4.1 percent fewer kilocalories) and ready-to-eat foods (4.9 percent fewer kilocalories). Hispanic households also had lower purchases of highly processed and convenience foods than did white households.

In comparison with white households, African-American households had overall packaged food purchases with higher sugar and energy density, whereas Hispanic households had overall purchases with lower saturated fat and energy density.

These findings suggest that highly processed and convenience foods are associated with, but cannot fully explain, racial and ethnic disparities in the nutritional quality of packaged food purchases. Further investigation is needed to understand how purchasing patterns of basic, less processed foods (like oil and sugar) that are used in cooking may contribute to disparities in diet and health.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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