Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal

Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Sep;106(3):717-724. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.117.160440. Epub 2017 Aug 9.


The NOVA classification of foods proposes 4 categories: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPFDs). It is argued that the latter relies heavily on modifications to foods, resulting in enhanced amounts of salt, added sugar, and fat as well as the use of additives in an attempt to make this food category highly palatable. It further argues that controlling food processing, rather than examining nutrients, should be foremost in shaping nutrition policy. This commentary challenges many of the basic arguments of using the NOVA food classification system to examine the link between food and health. We believe that there is no evidence to uphold the view that UPFDs give rise to hyperpalatable foods associated with a quasi-addictive effect and that the prevailing European Union and US data fail to uphold the assertion that UPFDs, which dominate energy intake, give rise to dietary patterns that are low in micronutrients. With regard to the use of the NOVA food classification in the development of food-based dietary guidelines, we show that the very broad definition of UPFDs makes this impossible. Finally, the available evidence does not support the view that the globalization of food is the driver of increased intakes of UPFDs in low- to middle-income countries but rather that this is driven by small indigenous companies. On balance, therefore, there seems to be little advantage from the use of the NOVA classification compared with the current epidemiologic approach, which relies on the linkage of nutrient intakes to chronic disease with subsequent identification of foods that merit consideration in public health nutrition strategies.

Keywords: NOVA classification; food; food classification; food-based dietary guidelines; health; ultra-processed.

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease*
  • Diet*
  • Energy Intake
  • Fast Foods / adverse effects*
  • Fast Foods / classification
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Food Handling*
  • Food Supply
  • Health
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Nutritive Value*