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Ultra-processed foods (UPF) Good or Bad?

Opinion: ‘Ultra-processed’, as defined by the NOVA classification, is a distraction from the discussions that we should be having as an industry

Marco Bertacca

Marco Bertacca, CEO of Quorn Foods

You can’t miss the increasing number of headlines demonising ultra-processed foods (UPF), stating they are a cause for all of society’s ill health. However, the concept of UPF is one that was never intended to determine the healthfulness of a food and is, therefore, not fit for purpose.

Despite the concept being around for over 15 years, there’s still no globally agreed definition of UPF, which is problematic in itself, as it fuels confusion around the topic.

NOVA is the most commonly used food processing classification system. It attempts to group foods into four categories of food processing. However, the NOVA 4 classification for ‘ultra-processed’ foods is fundamentally flawed at its core when it comes to health. Classifying foods in this way is simply not helpful to the consumer. Not only does the system ignore the overall nutritional profile of a food, but also overlooks the vital role that processing plays in our food system.

Food processing is part of a much bigger picture when it comes to ensuring food safety, sustainability and accessibility. It should not be used to determine whether a food is healthy or not. Nutritional composition is, and always will be, our best indicator of what’s good for us.

NOVA is completely detached from a food’s nutritional value. It was never created to benchmark the health of foods, but purely to determine the level of processing. This means that it captures foods such as wholemeal bread, tofu and mycoprotein, the key ingredient in Quorn products, which are all included in the UK Government’s Eatwell Guide.

The NOVA classification system, therefore, also groups many high-fat, salt, and sugar foods, which have a poor nutritional profile, with products that are better for you and can have a positive impact on your health. And are indeed, recommended as part of a balanced diet.

Under the NOVA system, Quorn products, which provide a source of high-quality protein and fibre, and are typically low in saturated fat, are grouped alongside things like cake, chocolate, crisps and sugar-sweetened drinks.

So far, there’s also a distinct lack of clinically robust research findings on this topic. We are seeing many stories in the news based on reports from observational studies, rather than the gold standard of randomised clinical controlled trials. Observational studies are much lower down in the hierarchy of scientific research evidence. We are not seeing any research that demonstrates a tested, causative link between processing and health outcomes. And association, most definitely doesn’t mean causation.

Much more research is needed to confirm or refute these observational findings that suggest a link between ultra-processed food and health outcomes, and I would welcome that. In the meantime, our industry should focus conversation on the nutritional value of the food we put in front of consumers.

Our business will continue investing in research to underpin the health, nutritional and sustainability benefits of choosing to include Quorn mycoprotein as part of a balanced diet. Independent academic research over the last 40 years, designed to better understand the health impact of our food, has shown positive links between our mycoprotein and health outcomes such as lower LDL cholesterol and better gut health.

With most foods we eat, the best advice is always to aim for balance and variety. We should strive for a diet that’s high in fibre, low in salt and saturated fat – one that is rich in wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid everything else.

I firmly believe that the concept of ‘ultra-processed’ is a broad and misleading term that moves focus away from what really matters. It’s a distraction from discussions that we should be having as an industry and as a society, around how to improve the health of people and our planet through nutritional and sustainable food production.

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