Are ultra-processed foods harmful? Experts present their arguments

A study from the American Society for Nutrition outlines the pros and cons of using the concept of ultra-processed foods to help inform dietary guidelines beyond conventional 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 discuss the issue during a live virtual debate June 14 during NUTRITION 2022 LIVE ONLINE.

The debate centers on NOVA, a system developed by Monteiro and his colleagues that classifies foods according to their degree of industrial processing, ranging from unprocessed or minimally processed to ultra-processed. NOVA defines ultra-processed foods as those made using sequences of processes that extract substances from foods and modify them with chemicals or additives to formulate the final product. Ultra-processed foods are generally designed to be cheap, palatable, and convenient; examples include soft drinks and candies, packaged snacks and pastries, ready-to-heat products, and reconstituted meat products or plant-based alternatives.

Studies have linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods – which are often high in salt, sugar and fat – to weight gain and an increased risk of chronic disease, even after adjusting the amount of salt. , sugar and fat in the diet. Although the mechanisms behind these associations are not fully understood, Monteiro argues that the existing evidence is sufficient to justify discouraging the consumption of ultra-processed foods in dietary recommendations and government policies.

“The negative dietary effects of ultra-processed foods have now been demonstrated by numerous nationally representative studies,” Monteiro wrote in his position paper. “[Guidelines] should emphasize the preference for unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals and make explicit the need to avoid ultra-processed foods.

In a counter-argument, Astrup argues that classifying foods according to their processing methods does not significantly improve existing systems and could lead to unintended consequences. For example, there are both nutritional and environmental benefits to a greater emphasis on plant-based foods, but many healthy plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are considered ultra-healthy. transformed. Astrup also argues that unhealthy foods like fries, burgers and pizza would be considered ultra-processed if purchased from a fast-food restaurant, but minimally processed if prepared at home with similar ingredients.

“It is clear that many aspects of food processing can affect health outcomes, but confusing them with the notion of ultra-processing is not necessary because the major determinants of chronic disease risk are already captured by existing nutrient profiling systems,” Astrup wrote. “The NOVA classification adds little to existing nutrient profiling systems; characterizes many healthy and nutrient-dense foods as unhealthy; and is counterproductive to solving major global food production challenges.” (ANI)


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