What’s Wrong With Ultra-Processed Foods?

Nisha Patel, MD, shares a bit about ultra-processed foods.

I am sure many of you have heard of “processed food.”

Many foods are processed to some extent, so it is not very helpful to make general statements such as “avoid all processed foods” as some processed foods can be considered healthful. This begs the question, how do we define processed foods?

This is where the NOVA Food Classification System comes into play. This system has been the easiest for me to understand & well regarded. It divides food into four separate categories based on the extent of industrial processing but NOT by the nutrient content.

I want to focus on group four, also known as ultra-processed foods.

Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of negative health outcomes.

For example, a study by Fiolet et al. suggests there may be an association between ultra-processed food consumption and increased risk of overall cancer and breast cancer. The authors concluded a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with an increase of 12% in the risk of overall cancer and 11% in the risk of breast cancer.

We definitely need more studies evaluating this association with longer follow up but I did find this particular study interesting as it does support the importance of limiting ultra-processed in our diets for a variety of health reasons.

Ultra-processed foods are generally calorie dense and nutrient poor and are made to be highly profitable (lower cost ingredients, longer shelf life), convenient (ready to eat), tasty and with vivid packaging.

The food manufacturing industry is not obligated to state on food labels the processes or purpose of processes used in making their products.

According to a paper by Monteiro et al,

a practical way to identify ultra-processed is to see if the ingredient list contains at least one food substance never or rarely used in a kitchen: hydrolyzed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, mechanically separated meat, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, hydrogenated or interesterified oil & additives such as flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, anti-foaming agents, bulking agents, carbonating agents, foaming agents, gelling agents & glazing agents.


“The food manufacturing industry is not obligated to state on food labels the processes or purpose of processes used in making their products.”

I also want to highlight that group three, also known as processed foods does include canned fruits and vegetables.

The right variety of canned foods can be a great addition to healthy eating, hence I do not make blanket statements stating that ALL processed food is unhealthy. Even plant based milks and meat alternatives are considered processed or ultra processed depending on the brand if you apply the NOVA definition.

Bottom Line: It is important to try to limit your consumption of ultra-processed foods, no matter what dietary eating pattern you follow.




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