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Spotlight On Ultra-Processed Food

Updated: Apr 4

Spotlight On Ultra-Processed Food

Is your diet full of ultra-processed food?

At present, several systems are used to classify foods according to processing-related criteria each employing different criteria and metrics. NOVA is, by far, the most common of such systems.

The purpose of the NOVA system is to classify “all foods, according to the nature, extent, and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo. In the NOVA system, foods are assigned to one of four groups:

Group 1 includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods. This includes whole foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, and meats and includes basic processes that remove parts of foods that can't be eaten or that make food safer for human consumption (like pasteurising milk) or that have been minimally modified/preserved.

Group 2 includes processed culinary ingredients. Foods that have undergone processes such as pressing, refining, milling, and grinding. Examples include butter from milk or sugar obtained from cane or beetroot.

Group 3 are the processed foods that contain two or three ingredients and usually as a result of foods from group 2 being added to foods from group 1. These include foods like fermented vegetables (for example, salt added to cabbage to create sauerkraut), cured meats, or freshly made bread.

Group 4 is made up of ultra-processed food. These are ready-to-eat industrially formulated products. To identify them, check whether or not they contain ingredients found in the kitchen. If the ingredients in processed food are items you have in your kitchen cupboard, then go ahead and have the food occasionally. If you can't pronounce them or simply a very long list, then it is best to avoid them.

Ultra-processed food is made in factories using cheap ingredients and complex industrial processes. It is designed primarily for profit.

When trying to identify ultra-processed food, look at the food's ingredients list. If it contains sweeteners, emulsifiers, colours, thickeners, flavour enhancers, modified starch, bulking agents, protein isolates, maltodextrin, humectants, high fructose corn syrup or anything alike, then it's ultra processed.

For example - a pot of hummus bought from a shop would be considered a processed food, but if the ingredients used are slightly processed whole foods, these are awesome to eat. When additives, flavourings, preservatives, colours, and sugars are added, it moves further away from its natural form, it is ultra-processed, and it becomes less nutritious.

Another example - bread made from wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast would be processed, but when you add emulsifiers, additives and colourings to mix it, then it becomes ultra-processed

One French study that examined the dietary records of more than 100,000 adults found that people who consumed more ultra-processed foods had higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.

I encourage my clients to steer clear of emulsifiers. They affect the gut lining, gut microbiome, and increase inflammation.


The Bottom Line Is This:

It is important to have a balanced diet that is mostly unprocessed food or slightly processed, then the occasional ultra-processed food is unlikely to derail you. I subscribe to the 80:20 rule, spend most of your time eating well, occasionally have the treat and don’t be too hard on yourself.


Veronique B, Isabelle S, Patrick S, Tyhaine H, Matthieu M, Catherine F, Nicole D (2022) Ultra-processed foods: how functional is the NOVA system? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 76, 1245-1253

PS: Fixing your diet helps everything. If you need any help to fix your diet, book a call here and let’s talk 

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