Conference Coverage

Ultra-processed: Doctors debate whether putting this label on foods is useful



Experts engaged in a contentious debate on the usefulness of the NOVA system, which divides foods into different categories based on how much they have been processed, during a session at a virtual conference sponsored by the American Society for Nutrition.

The NOVA system divides foods into “fresh or minimally processed,” such as strawberries or steel-cut oats; “processed culinary ingredients,” such as olive oil; “processed foods,” such as cheeses; and “ultra-processed foods.” UPFs are defined as “industrial formulations made by deconstructing natural food into its chemical constituents, modifying them and recombining them with additives into products liable to displace all other NOVA food groups.”

According to doctors who presented during the meeting, ultra-processed foods are drawing increased attention, because researchers have been examining them in National Institutes of Health–funded studies and journalists have been writing about them.

During the debate session at the meeting, some experts said that, with obesity and poor health skyrocketing, increased awareness and labeling of UPFs can only be a good thing. In contrast others noted at the meeting that the classification system that has come to be used for identifying UPFs – the NOVA Food Classification system – is too mushy, confusing, and, ultimately unhelpful.

Carlos Monteiro, MD, PhD, professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paolo, was part of the group favoring the NOVA system’s classifying certain foods as UPFs, during the debate. He drew attention to the extent to which the world’s population is getting its calories from UPFs.

Mexico and France get about 30% of calories from these foods. In Canada, it’s 48%. And in the United States, it’s 57%, Dr. Monteiro said.

Studies have found that UPFs, many of which are designed to be exceedingly flavorful and intended to replace consumption of unprocessed whole foods, lead to more overall energy intake, more added sugar in the diet, and less fiber and protein intake, he said.

To further support his arguments, Dr. Monteiro pointed to studies suggesting that it is not just the resulting change in the nutritional intake that is unhealthy, but the UPF manufacturing process itself. When adjusting for fat, sugar, and sodium intake, for example, health outcomes associated with UPFs remain poor, he explained.

“I’m sorry,” he said in the debate. “If you don’t reduce this, you don’t reduce your obesity, your diabetes prevalence.”

A study presented by Jacqueline Vernarelli, PhD, during a different session at the meeting suggested there may be other downsides to consuming UPFs. This research, which was based on the U.S. National Youth Fitness Survey, found that poorer locomotor skills among children aged 3-5 and poorer cardiovascular fitness among those aged 12-15 were associated with getting more calories from UPFs.

Those with lower cardiovascular fitness consumed 1,234 calories a day from UPFs, and those with higher cardiovascular fitness consumed 1,007 calories a day from UPFs (P = .002), according to the new research.

“It’s notable here that, although these differences are significant, both groups are consuming a pretty high proportion of their diet from ultra-processed foods,” said Dr. Vernarelli, associate professor of public health at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn., during her presentation.

In the debate session, Arne Astrup, MD, PhD, senior project director at the Healthy Weight Center at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Hellerup, Denmark, presented an opposing view.

He said the definition of UPFs makes it too difficult to categorize many foods, pointing to a study from this year in which about 150 nutrition experts, doctors, and dietitians classified 120 foods. Only three marketed foods and one generic food were classified the same by all the evaluators.

Referring to the study Dr. Astrup cited, Dr. Monteiro said it was a mere “exercise,” and the experts involved in it had conflicts of interest.

Dr. Astrup touted this study’s size and its appearance in the peer-reviewed journal the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Defending his point of view, Dr. Astrup said, “The definition and classification is so ambiguous, and the risk of misclassification is so extremely high, I think we really miss the basic requirement of science, namely that we know what we are talking about,” he said.

If you take an unprocessed food, and insert a “little additive … suddenly it’s an ultra-processed food,” he added.


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