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expert reaction to unpublished conference presentation on whether limiting ultra-processed food improves diet quality

An unpublished conference presentation at Nutrition 2024 looks into ultra-processed food and diet quality.


Dr Hilda Mulrooney, Reader in Nutrition & Health, London Metropolitan University, said:

“On the basis of what is presented, this appears to be a well-designed study which nicely illustrates a major problem many dietitians and nutritionists have with the NOVA classification system, namely that it distinguishes foods only on the basis of their degree of processing and not on their nutritional value. This study demonstrates that it is possible to have a diet high in ultra-processed foods (UPF) which still meets the national dietary recommendations. 

“This suggests that rejecting foods on the basis of their degree of processing would risk removing many foods which could add considerable nutritional value to diets. The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that for many nutrients, foods classified by the NOVA system as processed and/or ultra processed (e.g. some breakfast cereals, typical high street breads) make important contributions to dietary intake. Without them, there is a risk that some groups might not meet the recommended intakes of key nutrients. It suggests that ‘less processing’ does not necessarily equal ‘healthy eating’; it is not that simple.

“Important elements of this study are the effects on shelf life and costs; the researchers found that the less processed diet had a shorter shelf life and was more expensive. In the UK, the Food Foundation also calculated that healthy calories are more expensive than less healthy calories. Given the cost-of-living crisis, this is a really important consideration. Foods that last and are affordable are not only likely to be more attractive options to many, but to be the only options for some. 

“That being said, it is important to consider food processing; but it is not the only aspect of a food that decides how healthy it is. In the UK for example, the Eatwell Guide (dietary recommendations) emphasise the importance of including less processed foods in the diet and moving towards more sustainable patterns of eating. This study does not dispute this. However, it does demonstrate that degree of processing does not necessarily dictate the health benefits of foods or indeed diets.”



‘Unprocessed, but SAD: A Standard American Diet Made With Less – Processed Foods Is Still a Standard American Diet’ is a conference abstract which was presented by Julie Hess at Nutrition 2024. The work has not been peer reviewed.



Declared interests

Dr Hilda Mulrooney: I have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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