Ultra-processed foods in national dietary guidelines

The AFGC keeps a watching brief on research publications across scientific and technical disciplines of importance to the food industry.  

Public health researchers claim there is a growing body of evidence indicating that processing techniques used in food manufacture may be as harmful to health as consuming excessive amounts of sugar salt and fats. A novel way of categorising foods based on processing was developed by nutrition researchers in Brazil in 2010 called NOVA. The four food categories under the NOVA framework are  

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods  
  2. Processed culinary ingredients  
  3. Processed foods, and  
  4. Ultra-processed foods.  

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are defined as foods that are “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes”. 

This recent study looks at the range of terms used to refer to “processed foods” and the rationale provided to reduce intake of these foods in international and local dietary guidelines (DGs). Seventeen different terms were used to refer to “processed foods” within 19 international dietary guidelines. Australia and South Africa used the largest variety of descriptors.  

Three descriptors referred to the level of processing of the food: “ultra-processed”, “highly processed”, and “processed”. The remaining descriptors refer to other characteristics of the foods: energy content (energy dense), the ease of consumption (ready-made, convenience), or the context of consumption (snack food, takeaway).  

The most frequent way in which DGs communicated the harms of processed foods was through the nutrient content, specifically describing either the high level of harmful nutrients (sugar, salt and fat) or the lack of beneficial nutrients in many processed foods.  

The impact of processed foods on diet quality was linked to displacing healthier, minimally processed foods from the diet; overconsumption leading to excess energy intake; and by reducing the diversity of many diets. Reference was also made to how processed foods are displacing the need to cook for many people, resulting in a reduction in people cooking meals at home, and ultimately the loss of cooking skills across generations. 

The authors state that there is a lack of consensus and incoherence regarding the concept of ultra-processing in dietary advice which could be confusing to consumers unfamiliar with the term UPF. However, the authors advocate that this should not “preclude efforts to incorporate the concept of UPF into other food and nutrition policies”.   

A limitation of this type of study (qualitative content analysis) is that it is open to bias.  Different conclusions maybe derived based on the same information depending on the researcher as it is based on opinion and judgement rather than results. Nevertheless, there is increasing interest in NOVA and its use in nutrition policy. Moreover, this study presents no new evidence that processing per se is the driver of poor health outcomes, irrespective of the nutrients present in the food.  

Source: Quinn M, Jordan H, Lacy-Nichols J Upstream and downstream explanations of the harms of ultra-processed foods in national dietary guidelines  Public Health Nutr. 2021; 1-25.