The definition of an “ultraprocessed” food is ambiguous, it is based on a classification system called NOVA, but is not objectively defined. This has meant that studies looking at “ultra-processed foods” have grouped foods differently.
Examples of “ultra-processed” foods: Slice bread, baked beans, fortified foods, baby formula. It is important to note that the level of processing does not determine how healthy a food is.
Why do we process foods?
- To prolong shelf life and minimise food waste.
- To reduce cooking time and preparation, making foods accessible for those who are time poor or disabled.
- To make low quality ingredients palatable, making cheaper foods are widely available.
- Many foods are not edible if we do not process them.
- To produce functional foods, foods which are modified for health benefit for example: probiotics, fortified foods and baby formulas.
The evidence base
There are several studies which have found links to poor health and ultra-processed foods; however, every single study is observational, this means that the results are not certain and there is risk of bias. There are likely to be confounding factors that have not been accounted for such as social status. Many studies have small sample sizes and use unreliable ways of examining dietary intakes. Interpretation of the NOVA classification system differs across studies, this reduces the quality of the evidence.
There have been false claims in the media for example ‘ultra-processed foods are as bad as a lifetime of smoking and can cause cancer diabetes and dementia’. This has not been proven and is extremely scaremongering.
Ultra- Processed foods have been in the media due to a few high-profile health professionals and academics speaking about this topic. When looking into the reasons for the recent media coverage it is not due to new scientific evidence, it is due to the fact that these individuals have something to sell whether it is a book an app or a TV show. Just a reminder – the diet culture industry is worth hundreds of billions.
So who can trust to get our information from?
The UK Governments Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition – SACN recently reviewed the evidence in view of the media attention, this is their conclusion when reviewing the data:
“It is unclear to what extent observed associations between (ultra-) processed foods and adverse health outcomes are explained by established nutritional relationships between nutritional factors and health outcomes on which SACN has undertaken robust risk assessments.
The observed associations between higher consumption of (ultra-) processed foods and adverse health outcomes are concerning – however, the limitations in the NOVA classification system, the potential for confounding, and the possibility that the observed adverse associations with (ultra-) processed foods are covered by existing UK dietary recommendations mean that the evidence to date needs to be treated with caution.”
Essentially – there are many factors which mean that the evidence currently does not conclude that we should be avoiding ultra-processed foods. You can read the full report here.
Black and white thinking
Nutrition is never black and white. Labelling food into the categories of “ultra processed” or whole food sounds a lot like “bad“ and “good”.
We know that labelling foods like this can be a driving factor in disordered eating. There is never one nutrition recommendation that suits everyone.
Avoiding food which is deemed to be ultra-processed means an increase in food cost an increase in time spent cooking which is not possible for the majority of people in the UK. Your social status is the biggest determinant of your health outcomes and plays a huge role in food choice this is completely missed out of the discussion on this topic. I think this is likely to be the biggest confounding factor in the current research.
My problem with the term ultra-processed.
Calling foods ultra-processed does not inspire healthy accessible change. It shames people.
- Black and white labelling of foods is associated with disordered eating.
- The NOVA classification system is flawed.
- The increase in media interest in this topic is driven by those seeking financial gain.
- The observational evidence is not strong enough to form dietary recommendations and likely confounded by social factors.
Processed foods have a place in your diet.
If you’re struggling with a disordered relationship with food and exercise, know that you don’t have to face it alone. Professional support is crucial for your journey towards recovery.
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