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  • Writer's pictureJane Webber Nutrition

Are you eating "real" or "pretend" food?

I am like a sponge!! I love learning new things and one of the great things about being a nutritionist is the new understanding of the food we eat and how it affects us in the short and long term.

I tend to get my nutrition information from people such as Dr Tim Spector and the team at Zoe, and Dr Giles Yeo to name just 2 of them.

Now I am reading Ultra-Processed People, by Chris van Tulleken and how ultra-processed foods affect us across the world and how we can’t stop eating them.

All three of these Doctors speak about the NOVA food classification and I will be honest it was covered in my nutrition training, but it wasn’t covered in detail. I was probably naive in my own understanding when it came to buying food in my local supermarket and felt I was making "good" food choices.

After listening to a Zoe podcast where Chris van Tulleken was interviewed, I was amazed to hear him say the same thing. What he thought wasn't ultra or highly processed was in fact very processed. Plus he was feeding them to his kids!

What hope do I and others have if an experienced doctor who researches how corporations affect our health, especially children's is confused!!

In this podcast and in his book, he keeps references to the NOVA food classification and speaks with the team behind this classification.

So what is the NOVA food classification and how can it help us make more informed decisions when choosing the foods we eat each day?

The NOVA food classification is a system used to categorize foods based on the extent and purpose of food processing. The NOVA food classification system was first introduced and published in 2010 by a group of Brazilian researchers from the Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of São Paulo.

The researchers sought to create a classification system that focused on the degree of food processing rather than solely on nutrient composition.

The system gained attention within the scientific community and gradually garnered international recognition.

It has since been widely adopted and referenced in academic studies, public health guidelines, and discussions surrounding nutrition and food processing.

The purpose of the NOVA classification is to provide a framework for understanding the impact of food processing on health and nutrition.

It highlights the potential negative effects of consuming large amounts of ultra-processed foods, which are often associated with higher levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and low nutrient density. T

he classification system aims to encourage the consumption of minimally processed and unprocessed foods for better overall health and well-being. However, most of the general public won’t have heard it and maybe it’s time for us to understand what it means for our general health and well-being, especially when we are buying foods that we think are healthy, but in fact, are ultra-processed.

The NOVA classification divides foods into four main groups:

Group 1:

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods:

This group includes whole, natural foods that have undergone little to no processing. It consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, meat, fish, and milk.

Group 2:

Processed culinary ingredients:

This group comprises substances extracted from Group 1 foods or directly derived from nature, such as oils, fats, sugar, salt, and butter. These ingredients are used in cooking and preparing meals.

Group 3:

Processed foods:

This group includes foods that have undergone significant processing and often contain added ingredients. Examples include canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, cured meats, plain yoghurts, cheese, and simple bread made from refined flour. Usually, these foods are processed to preserve them for longer life.

Group 4:

Ultra-processed foods:

This group includes foods that are heavily processed and typically contain multiple additives, flavourings, and preservatives. They are often ready to eat or require minimal preparation. Examples include soft drinks, packaged snacks, frozen meals, sugary cereals, and many fast-food items. The other example is that they contain items that you wouldn’t find in your home kitchen when making meals.

Let’s go a little deeper into what is ultra-processed food.

As I said in the paragraph above, they are easy to eat on the go, need very little preparation, last for a long time, are highly palatable and contain very little nutritional content. Mass-made in large manufacturing plants with items you wouldn’t see in your kitchen!!

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

· Soft drinks and sweetened beverages

· Packaged snacks like chips, cookies, and candy bars.

· Fast food items like burgers, fries, and pizza

· Pre-packaged frozen meals.

· Instant noodles and soups

· Sugary cereals

· Processed meats like hot dogs and sausages

· Sweetened yoghurts and desserts

· Most types of pre-packaged and ready-to-eat convenience foods.

Often, we think a food item is healthy because of the labelling, so “contains 1 of your 5 a day” on a highly processed sugar-laden fruit smoothie. Phrases such as “high in protein” on a snack bar, hides the fact that it is also high in fat and sugars.

We know that ultra-processed foods are often associated with poorer dietary quality as they are high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, sodium, and calories while low in essential nutrients, fibre, and natural antioxidants.

Their regular consumption has been linked to an increased risk of various health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer.

Over 57% of the foods we eat in the UK are classified in Group 4 and we know that the poorer we are, the more likely we are to buy Group 4 food products. Not because we are lazy and don’t cook, but these foods are often cheaper, more readily available, and more convenient especially if you don’t have decent cooking facilities, or a fridge/freezer available.

Recently, I saw 6 apples at £2.50 and 12 Tesco brand doughnuts at the same price. A busy mother and father with school-age children on a limited budget will look at the quantity rather than the quality of the food. Anyone who judges the choices of food this family buys is lucky to be able to afford fresh food and have access to the choice.

It's important to note that not all processed foods are considered ultra-processed. The NOVA classification system distinguishes between different food processing levels, with ultra-processed foods representing the most heavily processed category.

I am not saying we should remove all ultra-processed foods from our diets because that would be unrealistic for many people. However, in the long term, if the government ignores the influence of the big food manufacturers when it comes to our food choices, we are building ourselves up for a bigger health crisis than we have presently.

What do you think? I would love to know your thoughts.

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