The topic of ultra-processed foods is a popular one in the food and nutrition world. The conversation generally relates to – are they bad or just not good for you. The bigger question might be, what are ultra-processed foods?
Defining Ultra-Processed Foods
The term ultra-processed foods was first coined in 2009. It is a part of a food grouping system referred to as NOVA. NOVA classification separates foods, not by nutritional value, as many grouping systems do, but by whether a food was unprocessed or processed. The reasoning behind the classification is to provide consumers with guidance on which foods will help keep them healthy and prevent disease.
The term has been adopted by a variety of countries and organizations. It is common to see differences in what foods are in which group. One of the key elements of the definition is the level of processing of food. All foods have some processing, fruits and vegetables are picked, washed, and packed – that is processing. Other foods are processed extensively. Many alternative meat products require extensive processing to achieve the desired product. The question is what affect does processing have on the nutritional quality of the food, this is where the definitions vary. In this paper by Gibney Supplementary Table 1 compares food grouping based on the definition of ultra-processed foods.
Recognizing Ultra-Processed Foods
One common factor in identifying ultra-processed foods is the list of ingredients. On the list of ingredients three points are important.
- Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight – major ingredient is first
- Typically checking the first three ingredients will give you a good picture of what is in the product
- Each ingredient is listed as it is used. If sugar is added three separate times, it is listed three times
While using the rule of “Don’t eat anything with more than ten ingredients” is very arbitrary it is a good idea to ask yourself if all of those ingredients are contributing to the nutrition of the product.
The NOVA classification system views ultra-processed foods as those that have emulsifiers, preservatives, flavorings, colorings, etc. These ingredients may be fine individually but the more that are the used, the higher the potential for a food to be less nutrient dense
Translating NOVA to Your Eating Plan
For most people, the bottom line is, what should I eat to be healthy. In looking at the NOVA lists it is clear to me, as a Registered Dietitian, the focus should be on making the best nutritional choice. Evidence shows that packaged foods often have more added fat, salt, and sugar than minimally processed foods. These three nutrients are connected to an increased risk of health issues, the best advice is to limit intake. One way to make the process of healthful eating easier is to use the Dietary Guidelines as a framework, learn more in this post. Try shifting to fewer processed foods by taking advantage of 2021 being the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.
To Your Health!
Processing is important to the food supply both in terms of food safety and availability. Focus on choosing foods that have minimal processing but most importantly focus on the nutrition. Make sure you check the Nutrition Facts Panel, not just the list of ingredients.
About Connie – Connie is a Registered Dietitian with extensive experience communicating in the food and nutrition space. Taking the science of food and nutrition and translating it to simple messages, new products, or exciting menus is her expertise. Making nutrition messages clear, accurate, and engaging aids all consumers.