Ultraprocessed Foods and Their Application to Nutrition Policy : Nutrition Today

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Food and Nutrition

Ultraprocessed Foods and Their Application to Nutrition Policy

Gibney, Michael J. PhD

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Nutrition Today 55(1):p 16-21, 1/2 2020. | DOI: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000393


Processed foods have been part of the human diet from the very earliest times. Recently, processed foods have come under scrutiny, particularly the category ultraprocessed foods as defined in the NOVA classification of foods. The basic tenet behind this renewed concern about ultraprocessed foods is that it is processing per se, which matters in diet and health, not nutrients or foods. Notwithstanding this, the literature on ultraprocessed foods is almost entirely focused around nutrients and obesity. However, not all studies have found positive links between obesity and ultraprocessed food intake. The category, ultraprocessed foods, is large, accounting for approximately 60% of energy intake and 90% of added sugar intake. The advocates of the NOVA system advise that the intakes of these foods should be avoided, but the scientific basis for this advice is very weak. Thus, a reduction in ultraprocessed foods has been advocated covering 16 foods to reduce US intakes of added sugar. However, when US food consumption data are examined on a food-by-food basis, only 6 of these 16 foods are associated with high added sugar intakes. Data from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Brazil fail to show a relationship between percent energy from ultraprocessed foods and the intakes of fats, saturated fatty acids, or sodium. There is a positive association between ultraprocessed food intake and the intake of added sugar. A negative correlation with dietary fiber is found. This is not surprising, because almost all added sugar is found in the category, ultraprocessed foods, while the majority of dietary fiber is excluded. When compared with the scientific literature, there is little scientific basis for limiting the use of infant foods, fat spreads, or commercially prepared breads in the present diet.

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