Sausage Maker Came to Lodz

Can “Ultra-Processed” Tell Us What’s Unhealthy to Eat?

The ASN Nutrition Live 2022 virtual meeting started with a feisty debate yesterday. The architect of the NOVA system for identifying ultra-processed foods – Carlos Monteiro – made the case for his magnum opus. Then, in this debate he faced off with nutrition professor Arne Astrup, who made the case that relying on the NOVA system is “counterproductive.” So what should we believe? Can that “ultra-processed” label really help us understand which foods to avoid because they’re unhealthy?

Can we improve our diets simply by eating only minimally processed or unprocessed foods?

In short, the answer is a firm maybe or maybe not.

Practical Problems

Astrup pointed out that the definition of ultra-processed foods is a blunt instrument. As a surrogate for determining that a particular food is unhealthy to eat, the ultra-processed label has a fatal flaw. It classifies some foods that are clearly healthful and nourishing as ultra-processed. Astrup sees this label as unhelpful:

“Clearly, many aspects of food processing can affect health outcomes, but conflating them into the notion of ultra-processing is unnecessary, because the main determinants of chronic disease risk are already captured by existing nutrient profiling systems.”

Better Than Nothing

Monteiro made the case that it’s good enough. And in fact, he says the need is urgent:

“The global urgency of this guideline is made clear by the worldwide rapidly increasing sales of UPFs, particularly in middle-income countries, and also because these products already amount to 50% or more of the total dietary energy intake in some high-income countries, with even higher consumption among children and adolescents.”

In other words, ultra-processed foods are taking over the world’s food systems. Though he doesn’t quite say we’re all doomed if we don’t quit eating so much of them, we get the idea.

The World Is Running with It

While this may still be an open debate, the hunger for an easy label to hang on dietary villains is intense. Fat as the culprit came and went. So did carbs. The whole sugar-is-poison meme isn’t holding up too well, though it still has legs.

Thus, recommendations to avoid ultra-processed foods are making their way into dietary guidelines all over the world. You can expect a lively debate on this subject in the upcoming dietary guidelines process for 2025 in the U.S. In summing up the urgency, professor Susan Roberts said:

“The world is drowning in unhealthy food.

“We’re engaged in an unprecedented experiment of how unhealthy can you make the world before having a major catastrophe.

“This is a big and important topic for the future of public health. It needs big committees to address it seriously. We should not be dealing with it piecemeal in different labs.”

Clicking here for the summary argument in favor of cautioning against ultra-processed foods, here for the counter argument, and here for more on the debate.

Sausage Maker Came to Lodz, illustration by Kazimir Malevich / WikiArt

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June 15, 2022

2 Responses to “Can “Ultra-Processed” Tell Us What’s Unhealthy to Eat?”

  1. June 15, 2022 at 7:51 am, Al Lewis said:

    While “poison” is a very strong word, sugar is still the main culprit in most ultra-processed food. It goes by 60+ different names and those names rarely if ever appear first on an ingredients label. See for an example.

    Basically, if it’s sweet and processed or especially ultra-processed, it’s full of sugar.

  2. June 16, 2022 at 2:05 am, Chester Draws said:

    Basically, if it’s sweet and processed or especially ultra-processed, it’s full of sugar.

    So the solution is to get people to stop eating so much sweet food., not to stop them eating “ultra-processed”. (And by stop, I don’t mean banning etc. Just persuasion.)

    Raw sugar cane juice is not processed at all, yet should not be a major component of anyone’s diet. Meanwhile a whole-meal bread ham sandwich is “ultraprocessed”, and no particular harm to anyone much.