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Ultra-processed foods bad for you? It’s the formulation, not the process

Blanketly calling what the world eats “ultra-processed” leads to an unjustified fear of food processing and results in rejecting some healthy, processed foods while missing out on the main culprit.

cereal bowl

We are food scientists/nutritionists, and we understand the need for processed foods. From time to time, we even eat them.

Here’s why.

We know that the vilification of processed foods by health professionals, the media, and amateur Instagram nutritionists is an easy sport. We also know this is not the age of nuance, but there’s a significant scientific and nutritional difference between so-called “ultra-processed foods” and healthily processed foods.

The fact is, processed foods — healthy processed foods — feed much of the world.

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That’s why we urge policymakers and health professionals to be careful in their language, research, and impact on our nation’s and the world’s food supply. Simply put, world hunger would be even greater if foods could not be processed.

It makes sense that the fear of “ultra-processed foods” is rampant. A Google search of ultra-processed foods results in millions of hits and the media regularly publish studies reporting negative health outcomes associated with eating such foods. Looking closer, it is not the processing but often the ingredients or formulation that result in unhealthy foods.

Processing involves grinding, mixing, cooking, drying or filtering that most likely would not contribute to an unhealthy diet. However, foods formulated to contain high amounts of added sugars, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and salt do not fit in a healthy diet. Those are the kinds of “ultra-processed” foods we all should avoid.

There’s something called the NOVA Food Classification System. It was developed in 2009 by University of Sao Paolo Professor of Nutrition and Public Health Carlos Monteiro. It classifies foods “according to the nature, extent, and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo.” And it has four categories ranging from unprocessed or minimally processed foods to ultra-processed foods.

The first category includes unsalted nuts, partially cooked grains, yogurt without sugar, dried fruits, eggs, pasta, and fresh herbs. We eat those for sure. They’re hard to avoid.

Examples from the fourth category include soda, energy drinks, pastries and cakes, cereals, margarine and spreads, pre-prepared fish and meat, pre-prepared pizza, and frosted breakfast cereals. We stay away from those, and you should, too.

Close examination of such ultra-processed foods demonstrates that it is often the formulation rather than the processing that makes them unhealthy.

For example, yogurt is processed. Healthy, right? But it would only be considered ultra-processed when sugar is added. Pasta is also processed and by itself fits in a healthy diet. When pre-prepared pasta dishes add salt, fat, and other ingredients, they are ultra-processed. Plain cornflakes, which we consider healthy, are processed but not ultra-processed until frosted with sugar, colors and flavorings are added.

Processing is not an all-or-nothing thing. It can affect the healthfulness of a food or ingredient in both a positive and negative way.

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Grinding peanuts to make peanut butter makes the fat more available for absorption, resulting in a somewhat higher caloric value.  Ultrafiltration of milk can result in lactose-free milk being helpful for individuals with lactose intolerance.  Various types of flours resulting from differences in milling and refining can result in foods with a high glycemic index and lead to high blood glucose levels.  Pasteurized orange juice has less available vitamin C than freshly squeezed orange juice and orange juice, either fresh or processed, is less healthy than the whole fruit. And there are processes, such as deep frying, that fundamentally have a negative health impact.

We must judge the impact of processing on a case-by-case basis.

We should also not forget that processing is necessary for food safety, shelf life and palatability, which are positive attributes that feed the world.

So, let’s drop the term “ultra-processed foods.”  Processing is important. And to call out the category of unhealthy foods perhaps the term “ultra-formulated foods” would be more accurate. That might seem like we’re splitting hairs, but it is mostly the sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, salt and specific food additives that are added to our daily foods to make them more appealing that have negative long-term consequences for our health. Those are the ultras and they’re bad.

Blanketly calling what the world eats “ultra-processed” leads to an unjustified fear of food processing and results in rejecting some healthy, processed foods while missing out on the main culprit: unhealthy formulations driven by consumer appeal, marketing and costs.

After all, processed food helps feed the world. And that’s essential.

Allen Levine is a professor emeritus and former vice president for Research and dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. Job Ubbink is a professor and head of the University of Minnesota’s Food Science and Nutrition Department.