Processing the evidence to evaluate mechanisms, costs and future solutions

To read full editorial by RESTRUCTURE project partner Ciarán G. Forde:

The current issue of Nutrition Bulletin discusses the topic of ultra-processed foods (UPF) based on a roundtable discussion held at the British Nutrition Foundation. The article emphasizes the complexity of the issue and challenges the notion that all processed foods are inherently bad for health, calling for better studies and a more nuanced approach to understanding the effects of processing on health.

  1. The current classification system for processed foods, known as the NOVA scheme, is not suitable for guiding dietary advice or food policy.
    The NOVA categorization of UPF has limitations and lacks consensus in definitions and application. Many studies linking processed foods to health fail to account for other factors like diet quality, making it challenging to attribute negative health outcomes solely to processing. The quality of reporting in dietary association studies has been improving, but more efforts are needed to enhance the accuracy and validity of findings.
  2. There is a need for empirical studies to investigate the mechanisms linking UPF intake to health outcomes, moving beyond observational studies. While there has been speculation about the mechanisms linking processed food consumption to various health effects, there is currently no single explanation for the diverse range of outcomes reported. The discussion calls for research on specific aspects of food processing, such as non-nutritive components and sensory cues, to better understand their influence on energy intake and health.
  3. It is important to consider the economic context in which processed foods are consumed, including food security, accessibility and affordability. Food processing can provide safe, affordable, and appealing sources of nutrition. Policies and regulations should take these factors into account and stigmatizing their consumption may have adverse effects on vulnerable populations.

In conclusion, the debate around processed foods should involve a better understanding of their effects on health while also addressing societal, economic, and environmental factors. The goal should be to improve the food environment and provide secure, safe, and affordable access to nutrients without stigmatising processed foods.