Ultra-Processed Foods and Redefining What is ‘Healthy’

Processed foods have been the enemies of nutritionists and dieters worldwide since the inception of the NOVA Food Classification System in 2009. These foods often contain added sugars, fats, and salts, which studies suggest may increase your risk of developing various diseases. The latest debate, however, argues that a food processing method is no grounds for labeling something as “healthy” or “unhealthy” – calling on the food and beverage industry to re-evaluate how we classify food.
Understanding the NOVA Food Classification System
NOVA is a system that categorizes foods into four groups according to the level of processing they undergo. Food processing may include biological, chemical, or physical processes between harvesting the source plants or animal products and consuming the food in its final form. NOVA’s four groups are:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally-processed foods
    Unprocessed foods have not undergone any changes and are edible in their natural form, including fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, meat, milk, and water. Minimally-processed foods are natural foods cleaned, prepared, and packaged without adding additional ingredients – e.g., dried herbs.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
    This group includes substances such as oils, fats, salts, and sugars, derived from unprocessed foods to use as seasonings during domestic cooking. Most people only use small quantities of these ingredients, which include extracts, seed oils, honey, butter, and refined salt.
  3. Processed foods
    These foods are the result of combining ingredients from groups one and two. They are recognizable as variations of natural foods with some additives that extend shelf life or enhance flavor. Processed foods include cheese, bread, and canned or bottled fish, fruit, and vegetables.
  4. Ultra-processed food and drink products
    Foods in this group are formulated almost entirely from food derivatives and often contain very little naturally-occurring foods. It takes a long chain of processes, such as molding, extrusion, and hydrolyzation, to form an ultra-processed food. They require additives, such as dyes, emulsifiers, humectants, and anti-caking agents, to keep them stable and palatable.

What Makes Ultra-Processed Foods Unhealthy?
Most ultra-processed foods contain added sugars, fats, and salts – making them highly palatable and energy-dense. A recent clinical study1 discovered that people are more likely to over-eat when following a predominately ultra-processed diet than those who eat primarily whole foods. This overconsumption of fat, sugar, and salt causes weight gain, leading to obesity, coronary heart disease, Diabetes, and circulatory issues.
Criticism of The NOVA System and Redefining ‘Healthy’ Food
Many people have criticized the NOVA system for classifying foods based on processing methods alone, which may cause consumers to perceive some nutrient-dense foods as unhealthy. Many believe the system assumes that all commercially-processed foods are low nutritional value. It does not allow smart-processing techniques to elevate a food’s bioactivity and health benefits or processing without added sugars, salts, and fats.
While NOVA may help us distinguish between processed and unprocessed foods, it should not necessarily be a basis for our perception of healthy versus unhealthy eating. Our food classification system should evolve as new food processing technology emerges to prioritize healthy additives, such as enzymes and antioxidants.
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1 https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/pdf/S1550-4131(19)30248-7.pdf