Leading scientists present arguments for and against incorporating the concept of ultra-processed foods into dietary guidelines
Two papers published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) outline the case for and against using the concept of ultra-processed foods to help inform dietary guidelines beyond conventional food classification systems.
The debate centres around NOVA, a system developed by Dr Monteiro and colleagues (University of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil) that classifies foods by their degree of industrial processing, ranging from unprocessed or minimally processed to ultra-processed. NOVA defines ultra-processed foods as those made using sequences of processes that extract substances from foods and alter them with chemicals or additives in order to formulate the final product.
Studies have linked consumption of ultra-processed foods — which are often high in salt, sugar and fat, with weight gain and an increased risk of chronic diseases, even after adjusting for the amount of salt, sugar and fat in the diet.
In a counterargument, Dr Astrup (Novo Nordisk Foundation in Hellerup, Denmark) argues that classifying foods according to their processing methods does not meaningfully improve upon existing systems and could lead to unintended consequences. For example, there are both nutritional and environmental benefits to increasing the emphasis on plant-based foods, yet many healthful plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are considered ultra-processed.
Dr Astrup also contends that unhealthful foods like fries, burgers and pizza would be considered ultra-processed if purchased from a fast-food restaurant but minimally processed if made at home with similar ingredients.
image credit- shutterstock