The Allure of Targeting Ultra-Processed Foods

Like Moths to a FlameIn popular culture right now, it seems that ultra-processed foods are the bad boys. “Ultra-processed foods linked to heart disease, cancer, and death, studies show,” says one recent headline. Scary stuff, eh? Targeting ultra-processed foods for scorn wins approving nods.

But even if it supports a favored narrative, looking closely at research on ultra-processed foods is a good idea. Even researchers can be drawn into such popular narratives and lose a bit of objectivity.

Dietary Counselling Targeting Ultra-Processed Foods?

For a case in point, take a close look at this study in the European Journal of Nutrition. Daniela Saes Sartorelli and colleagues studied the effects of counseling pregnant women with BMI between 25 and 30 to favor minimally processed over ultra-processed foods in their diets. It was an RCT.

In their abstract, the authors are quite enthusiastic about their findings:

“The present study was unprecedented in demonstrating that nutritional counselling based on the NOVA food classification system, together with encouraging the practice of physical activity, is effective in preventing excessive weight gain in overweight pregnant women.”

But in the body of the paper, we find reasons to temper that enthusiasm:

“In the modified intention-to-treat analysis, the intervention group presented a lower mean total and weekly GWG compared to the CG; however, neither was statistically significant.”

So it seems that the “unprecedented” significance of these findings might not be so significant. Perhaps “unprecedented” ain’t what it used to be.

Curiosity About Ultra-Processed Food

But we have no doubt that post-publication review by smart, independent scientists will make sense of these mixed findings. Whatever statisticians can tell us about a more objective interpretation, there’s something even more important here.

We do have some evidence that ulta-processed food can be problematic for human health. However, we truly don’t know exactly why or how it seems that it might cause problems. That’s because the definition is a bit squishy.

So curiosity is absolutely necessary to figure out the dimensions of problems that ultra-processed foods might present. Because ultra-processed foods also play a role in keeping may people adequately fed on this planet. Better knowledge will be essential for sorting out the good from the bad. Presumptions are not good enough.

Click here for the Sartorelli study and here for thoughtful consideration of a broader perspective on ultra-processed foods.

Like Moths to a Flame, photograph by Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve / Wikimedia Commons

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September 12, 2022

One Response to “The Allure of Targeting Ultra-Processed Foods”

  1. September 12, 2022 at 12:42 pm, M Sager said:

    The article you called a “thoughtful consideration” of the issue was not as thoughtful as you think. There are some slippery uses of facts and data. The comments below were far more on point.