Not all ultra-processed foods impact health the same way, research suggests

“Demonizing ultra-processed foods because of the processing, rather than their unhealthy formulation, could undermine public acceptance of processing as essential for the development of nutritious foods that are affordable, sustainable, safe from foodborne illness” and safe for storage and transport, Mark Messina, director of nutrition science and research for Soy Nutrition Institute Global, argued at FNCE.

For example, he explained, many plant-based meats created in recent years to more accurately replicate the eating experience of animal protein are considered ultra-processed under the NOVA classification system, which divides foods into four categories based on the processing they undergo.

Under NOVA, the first group includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, meat and milk, the second is processed culinary ingredients, like butter and vinegar, that are commonly eaten with group one foods. The third group is processed, and includes a combination of ingredients from groups one and two, chiefly for preservation, and the fourth is ultra-processed. This last group, in which most plant-based meat and milk fall, are made with non-home ingredients, chemicals, colors, sweeteners, industrial ingredients and are typically high in fat, sugar and salt, according to the NOVA system.

The products in this group are often associated with myriad health concerns, including diabetes, obesity, increased risks of cancer and more, based on quickly emerging research that prompted the US government to task the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee with considering how processing impacts growth, body composition and risk of obesity, and hosting a two day workshop examining ultra-processed foods.