The American Society for Nutrition published a research that outlines the argument for and against adopting the idea of ultra-processed meals to assist inform dietary guidelines that go beyond traditional food classification systems.
The authors, Carlos A. Monteiro, MD, PhD, of the University of Sao Paulo in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Arne Astrup, MD, PhD, of the Novo Nordisk Foundation in Hellerup, Denmark, will debate the subject live on June 14 at NUTRITION 2022 LIVE ONLINE. The controversy is around NOVA, a system developed by Monteiro and colleagues that categorises foods according to their degree of industrial processing, ranging from unprocessed or slightly processed to ultra-processed.
NOVA describes ultra-processed foods as those created through a series of procedures that remove ingredients from foods and change them with chemicals or additives to create the final product. Soft drinks and confectionery, packaged snacks and pastries, ready-to-heat items, and reconstituted animal products or plant-based equivalents are all examples of ultra-processed foods.
Even after correcting for the quantity of salt, sugar, and fat in the diet, studies have associated consumption of ultra-processed foods – which are typically heavy in salt, sugar, and fat – with weight gain and an increased risk of chronic illnesses.
While the mechanisms behind these relationships remain unknown, Monteiro contends that the available data is adequate to support restricting the use of ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines and government policy.
“Many nationally representative studies have now made obvious the detrimental dietary impacts of ultra-processed foods,” Monteiro said in his position paper. “[Guidelines] should highlight the desire for unprocessed or less processed foods and freshly prepared meals, as well as the need of avoiding ultra-processed foods.”
In a counterargument, Astrup claims that categorising foods based on their processing processes does not enhance existing systems and may have unforeseen consequences.
For example, increasing the emphasis on plant-based meals offers both nutritional and environmental benefits, but many beneficial plant-based meat and dairy replacements are considered ultra-processed. Astrup further claims that unhealthy items such as fries, burgers, and pizza are ultra-processed when purchased from a fast-food restaurant but less processed when prepared at home with equivalent components.
“Clearly, many elements of food processing might impact health outcomes,” concluded Astrup. “However, combining them into the idea of ultra-processing is superfluous because the primary drivers of chronic disease risk are already captured by existing nutrient profile techniques.” “The NOVA categorization adds little to existing nutrition profile methods; labels numerous good, nutrient-dense foods as unhealthy; and is unproductive in addressing the key global food production concerns.”