How unhealthy are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are often described as the modern health scourge: a threat linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer and premature death lurking on every supermarket shelf.

Researchers have warned of the dangers and called for taxes or even bans on the products, which make up a large portion of the world’s food supply.

However, some nutrition experts are beginning to push back against this catch-all statement, saying the definition can be vague. They say more research is needed and some ultra-processed foods (UPF) are actually healthy.

This concept was first proposed in 2009 by Carlos Monteiro, a nutrition and health researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

His UPF NOVA classification system is unusual in the world of nutrition because it ignores the levels of nutrients such as fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates in foods.

Instead, it divides foods into four groups, ranking them based on the level of processing involved in their preparation. Everything in the fourth group is considered ultra-processed.

Monteiro said UPF isn’t all about food.

He told us that they were recipes for substances derived from food AFP.

They contain little or no natural foods and often have added colorings, flavours, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives to make them palatable. Examples include potato chips, ice cream, soft drinks and frozen pizza. But items not traditionally considered junk food are also included, such as non-dairy products, baby formula and supermarket bread.

According to the NOVA scale, nearly 60% of calories consumed in the United States and the United Kingdom come from UPF.

confuse

In recent years, dozens of studies have found that people who consume large amounts of UPF have a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, asthma, depression and other illnesses.

But these studies were almost entirely observational, which means they can’t prove that UPF directly causes these health problems.

Monteiro pointed to a randomized controlled trial in the United States that is considered the gold standard in research.

In a 2019 trial, 20 people were fed ultra-processed or unprocessed foods for two weeks and then the opposite diet for the following two weeks.

These diets are consistent with factors such as fat, sugar, and total calories.

Those eating UPF gained an average of nearly 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), while those eating an unprocessed diet lost the same amount.

However, there were no restrictions on the amount of food participants in the trial could eat, including snacks. People on the UPF diet ate more food, and their weight gain roughly matched the number of calories they consumed, the researchers said.

Monteiro said the research shows how big companies can make food products too tasty, leading to overconsumption and even the risk of addiction.

But one of the study’s co-authors, Ciaran Forde of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, dismissed the idea that something unique about UPF makes it irresistible.

Ford, a critic of NOVA who revealed he worked at food giant Nestlé nearly a decade ago, said it wasn’t just the public who was confused.

In a French study published last year, nearly 160 nutrition experts were asked to place 231 different foods into four NOVA categories, and they unanimously agreed on only four of them.

Healthy UPF Diet?

This potential confusion is why US researchers hired NOVA experts to help them formulate a healthy diet, in which 91% of calories come from UPF.

Their week-long menu scored 86/100 on the American Healthy Eating Index, well above the average American diet of 59/100.

Julie Hess, a USDA nutritionist who led the study, said AFP They look for fruits and vegetables, such as dried blueberries or canned beans, that are considered ultra-processed because they contain additives such as preservatives.

There may be something here, but the current scale puts gummies and soda in the same category as oranges and raisins, she said.

Both Hess and Forde noted that many people don’t have the time or money to cook every meal with fresh ingredients.

Ford said taxing processed foods during a cost-of-living crisis would be regressive and could impact the most vulnerable.

Robin May, chief scientific adviser to the UK Food Standards Agency, warned earlier this year against a knee-jerk reaction of treating all UPF the same when it is clear that everything is different.

Monteiro dismissed criticisms of the NOVA scale.

Those who profit from the sale of ultra-processed foods naturally dislike the NOVA classification and often have doubts about its functionality, he said.

He called for ultra-processed foods to be treated like tobacco and praised a recent ban on ultra-processed foods in Rio de Janeiro schools.

So what impact does this debate have on people who just want to eat healthy? Hess believes that most people already know what foods are good for them: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, some lean protein and low-fat dairy products.

Sometimes even some delicious full-fat cheese is allowed, she adds.

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