Ultra-processed food is back under the spotlight. ‘In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought. We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia,’ Tim Spector, a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London, told a recent BBC Panorama documentary.
Calls for a crackdown are growing: Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins says a ban is ‘common sense’. The idea sounds appealing: outlawing the sale of foods that some people believe are the main reason for obesity, type 2 diabetes and other disease would clearly have an impact – although not necessarily the one intended. Banning infant formula, classed as ultra-processed food, would clearly endanger many lives. And there will be many other unintended consequences, such as rising food costs.
As a professor of nutrition and food science, I have seen a lot of diet fads. Most are based on a very narrow and selective interpretation of science and make unrealistic promises. They often require very restrictive diets and, instead of improving health, can lead to eating disorders. The human body is able to thrive on a wide range of different foods. A balanced diet – boring as it might sound – is still the best option.
The focus on the ‘ultra-processed food’ concept is a variation of the ‘clean eating’ idea. It stems from the belief that processing destroys the healthiness and wholesomeness of food. It is derived from the ‘Nova’ classification, a framework to classify foods, according to the extent and purpose of processing instead of the more common nutrient profile. Within Nova, ‘ultra-processed foods’ are seen as foods that should be avoided – but there are several problems with this concept. Even after more than a decade, there is no single agreed upon definition – and those that are available are ambiguous and vague.