Humans have been processing food since we became humans. Beginning with smashing bones for the nutritious marrow inside and then cooking to release the nutrients from meat and tubers that were important in developing this big brain.
These days food is available that is unprocessed or minimally processed and food that is processed.
Then there is ultra-processed food.
Researchers in Brazil have come up with a classification system called NOVA, that provides criteria to divide food into four groups based on their level of processing.
Group one foods
Group One are unprocessed or minimally processed foods that we can eat straight from nature (fruits, leaves, tubers, meat, fat, eggs, milk) with minimal processing, peeling, grinding, freezing, cooking, fermenting, etc.
Group two foods
Group Two foods are processed culinary ingredients obtained directly from Group one foods using slightly more industrial processes (pressing, centrifuging, mining). These are products used in preparing, seasoning, and cooking Group 1 food – butter, salt, and oils.
Group three foods
Group Three foods are processed foods produced using preservation methods such as canning and bottling and, in the case of bread and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. These foods usually have two or three ingredients and are recognisable as modified versions of Group 1 foods.
Group Four are ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are products like soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products, and pre-prepared frozen dishes.
Ultra-process foods are not just modified foods from Group 1 but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food.
These foods include additives intended to enhance the smell or taste of foods or to hide unpalatable aspects like smell or colour. These additives include dyes and other colours, colour stabilisers; flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners, and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants, and humectants.
Ultra-processing aims to create branded, convenient, hyper-palatable, and highly profitable products using low-cost ingredients. These food products are designed to displace other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are packaged attractively and marketed intensively.
The idea for NOVA (a name not an acronym) came from the realisation that modern technology, when applied to food, had made a profound impact not only on what we eat but also on our health. The foods our grandparents ate were those combinations of ingredients that made the vast variety of meals and dishes that we recognise from the various cultures and traditions across the world. Groups 1, 2 and 3.
From about the 1980s, packaged, branded, ‘convenience’ foods (Group 4) became prominent, particularly in those countries without strong culinary traditions, and comparative wealth. Given the profitability of these foods and the marketing capacity of corporations with a global reach, these foods are also displacing traditional eating patterns in middle and low-income countries.
Increasing rates of obesity and diabetes and other diseases have corresponded with the increasing displacements of traditional ways of eating across the world.
NOVA was inspired by the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines that, rather than recommending a quantity of particular nutrients like fat or protein, or food groups like grains and vegetables, steer people away from ultra-process foods. These guidelines promote minimally processed food, show how these foods become meals, and embrace food’s cultural and social context.
Is all processed food bad?
No, in fact, it is often necessary. Fermentation turns flour into bread, pasteurisation makes milk safer to drink and that orange and that pineapple need to be peeled.
However, there is not much positive to say about ultra-processed food.
There is a lot of published literature exploring the link between ultra-processed food and non-communicable diseases – heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer….
What sustainably FED suggests…
Some processing is inevitable for better nutrient absorption and for the safe storage and transport of foods. But perhaps we need to build healthy, sustainable diets around foods ready for eating with minimal processing.
Providing enough food for all is a challenge. We need to follow the evidence to ensure our food systems provide a diet that promotes health, not just profit.