Diet | NOVA Food Classification | Ultra-Processed Foods

Cheap, attractive, and convenient, specifically engineered to taste delicious, we can’t stop until the package it’s empty – it’s hard not to. But is ultra-processed food really bad for your gut and overall health?

We hear so often that junk food, chips, soft drinks, and ready meals are bad for us. Researchers also found a strong link between the consumption of highly processed foods and poor health markers. Why does food processing matter for our health?

Let’s dive into it!

What Is the purpose of food processing?

Food processing is a very general and blurry term that covers all different ways to transform raw ingredients into edible foods. 

Sometimes, processing is essential to making food tasty, digestible, and safe to eat. Cooking, for example, is the most simple and familiar form of processing and clearly isn’t something harmful by and of itself. Actually, unless you grow your own food, almost everything we eat has been processed to some extent. 

We have been baking, smoking, canning, freezing, fermenting, and sweetening our foods for generations. And all these procedures are just necessary to counteract food spoilage, prevent foodborne illness, and improve the nutritional value of foods. There’s nothing wrong with that!

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed foods are a different story. 

Far from cooking or fermenting, the food industry has created a sort of concoction of highly refined, designed to last forever, and dangerously addictive foods. Using the cheapest vegetable oils, flours and sugars these items need to be whipped up with industrial additives to be transformed into something edible. Because otherwise, they would be disgusting! 

According to the NOVA Food Classification system, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances that have already been highly modified like hydrogenated fats, isolated protein, or high-fructose corn syrup together with flavor enhancers and several food additives to make products hyper-palatable. Preservatives, antioxidants, stabilizers, colors, and perfumes are used to create ideas of exotic fruits or nutritious vegetables that were never part of the original recipe.

Some common ultra-processed products are carbonated soft drinks, packaged snacks, candies, mass-produced packaged bread and buns, cookies, sweetened breakfast cereals, energy drinks, pizza, sausages, burgers, reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles, and desserts.

Promoted by powerful brands that invest millions and millions in marketing campaigns makes it difficult for us, regular consumers, to know the true nature of these “edible” items.

Are ultra-processed foods unhealthy?

The problem starts when these items take over your shopping basket and slowly become the basis of your diet. 

The excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods displaces the real and nutritious foods out of our meals. The biggest risk here is that these items are specifically designed to be highly addictive. It’s very difficult for our brains to set a limit and we end up consuming lots of empty calories, without any real nutrition.

The truth is: far from good for us, these products are low in dietary fiber, micronutrients, and phytochemicals, being highly detrimental to your gut and overall health.

How do ultra-processed foods affect your gut microbiome?

What you eat directly impacts the composition and function of the trillions of microbes that make up your microbiome. Any changes in your habitual diet, macronutrient composition, or introduction of new foods affect your gut and consequently your health.

Studies exploring the link between diet, microbes, and markers of metabolic health, characterized strong associations between diet quality and certain species of microbes. Looking at the proportion of processed versus unprocessed foods, they found that a diet rich in minimally processed plant-based foods is associated with beneficial gut bugs. And processed animal-based foods like sausages, bacon, and creamy desserts were associated with having more “bad” microbes 

The most important finding was that highly processed plant-based foods such as juices and industrial sauces were also associated with “bad” microbes. This fact highlights how important food processing is for your microbes and consequently your overall health.

How to spot ultra-processed food?

If you see a very long ingredients list with lots of chemical-sounding names and things that you normally would not use in your kitchen, that’s probably a good indication that you are about to grab an ultra-processed food.

Finding a healthy balance

Busy schedules, work, calendars full of activities, make us need quick, easy, and convenient solutions. So no need to panic! Behavioral changes take time and that’s perfectly okay. 

Start simple. Try to reduce your daily consumption and choose more natural or minimally processed foods when you can. 

And remember that our daily habits can either support or threaten our health. It’s not what we do occasionally. It’s our everyday choices that really count!

Keep your gut microbes happy, well-fed, and improve your health!


References:

Weaver CM, Dwyer J, Fulgoni VL 3rd, et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99(6):1525-1542. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.089284

Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019;22(5):936-941. doi:10.1017/S1368980018003762

Asnicar F, Berry SE, Valdes AM, et al. Microbiome connections with host metabolism and habitual diet from 1,098 deeply phenotyped individuals. Nat Med. 2021;27(2):321-332. doi:10.1038/s41591-020-01183-8