Comfort Cravings

Oxymoronic Healthy Eating with Ultra-Processed Foods

A new study in the Journal of Nutrition reports that people can eat 91 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed foods and still be eating a pretty healthy diet.

Hold Onto Your Socks

This is not opposites day. Rather, it might be that the we are living in a time of peak demonization of ultra-processed foods. So if you skim nutrition headlines with any frequency – as we do – the mere exposure effect has likely conditioned you to presume ultra-processed ≈ unhealthy.

But it’s not quite that simple, as Julie Hess and her colleagues explain in their paper:

“This study highlights the challenges with categorizing foods as ‘unprocessed,’ ‘minimally processed,’ or ‘ultra-processed,’ as well as the potential consequences of cautioning against the consumption of all ultra-processed food in the interest of public health. Further, the results show that, despite its wide usage, NOVA is not useful for determining the healthfulness of either individual foods or dietary patterns when current DGA recommendations are used as context to indicate healthfulness.”

Ultra-Processed Food from the Big Food Villians

It seems that food policy is a playground for moral dramas. In most of these dramas, Big Food is the villain, profiting from our weakness for their tasty products. Right now, there’s a mini drama playing out regarding new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. They don’t caution people against eating ultra-processed foods.

Marion Nestle calls this a story of effective food industry lobbying:

“The food industry came out in force on this issue and greatly overwhelmed the few comments of public health advocates.”

Rune Blomhoff, the professor of nutrition from the University of Oslo who led the project that produced these guidelines, has a different view:

“The main problem with the term ‘ultra-processed food’ is that the definition used is too imprecise. Many healthy foods will also be included in the usual NOVA classification used in the literature, in addition to many unhealthy foods.”

It seems that broad brushes don’t paint very clear pictures in nutrition. So we prefer to stick with objective evidence and to remain curious about diverse ways of looking at food and health.

Click here for the new paper by Hess et al and here for further perspective.

Comfort Cravings, photograph by Ted Kyle / ConscienHealth

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July 13, 2023