Ultra processed food- the what, why and how

Ice cream

What are ultra processed foods?

Professor Carlos Monteiro of Brasil coined the term when he and his colleagues linked the increase of obesity and chronic diseases to harmful food production.

They came up with a classification system called NOVA that groups foods based on their degrees of processing:

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

The group that concerns us the most at the moment is no. 4. They tend to contain additives such as artificial flavors, added sugars, stabilizers, preservatives and much more. However, they often also claim to be healthy! Who would have thought flavoured curd belongs to this category??

The purpose of these ultra-processed foods is convenience. Many are ready-to-eat, require very little preparation to be palatable, and are low in cost. If you’re thinking of those 2 minute ready to eat soups, noodles and microwave dinners, you’re right. They are ultra convenient and ultra unhealthy!

Can’t think of what else belongs to this group? Here’s a list:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged bread and buns
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Store-bought ice cream
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Instant noodles
  • Infant formula
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs  

Why are ultra processed foods unhealthy?

They come so attractively packed that we tend to overconsume them in minutes. The calories they offer are empty. But they offer much more- added sugar, saturated fat, sodium and amazing taste that borders on addiction. Remember the popular jingle- No one can eat just one! ? 

Here’s an example how 2 minute spicy noodles score on the NOVA list. You can search for your favourite meals or simply scan the barcode and you’ll have all the information you need to decide if you want to go the ultra way.

How are processed foods different from ultra processed foods?

Processed foods undergo a change before being sold. This can include canning, smoking, pasteurizing, and drying.Thus foods that belong here are canned vegetables, canned broth, salted nuts, canned fish, plain yogurt, tofu, cheese, and smoked meats. 

Ultra-processed food takes this process one step further by incorporating additives such as added sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors, and colors.

Therefore, while some processed foods may contain additives, they can still be part of a healthy diet in moderate amounts.

How can one stay off ultra processed foods?

3 simple steps:

  • The shorter the shelf life, the healthier the food. That means, go for the fresh stuff rather than the packaged stuff. Bananas over banana chips, fresh sprouts over deep fried packaged lentils.
  • Inform yourself! Read ingredient lists, scan barcodes, look up the additives.
  • Cook more. You know exactly what goes into your food and chances are you are not producing food that will last for years.

Sources and recommended reading:

  1. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/913271
  2. https://www.cookinglight.com/eating-smart/nutrition-101/what-is-ultra-processed-food
  3. https://in.openfoodfacts.org/product/8901063139206/bourbon-biscuits-britannia