Rethinking the Health Impact of Food Processing: Insights from a Comparative Study

by Ella

A recent study challenges the notion that consuming primarily minimally processed foods guarantees a healthy diet, highlighting the complexities of dietary quality beyond food processing levels as defined by the NOVA classification system.

Led by Julie Hess, PhD, from the USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, the research compared two Western-style menus: one emphasizing minimally processed foods and the other focusing on ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Surprisingly, both menus, despite their processing distinctions, scored similarly low (HEI scores around 43-44 out of 100) in terms of adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.


The study found that the less-processed menu, which derived only 20% of its calories from UPFs, was significantly more expensive ($34.87 per day per person) compared to the more-processed menu ($13.53 per day per person). Additionally, the shelf life of foods in the less-processed menu was considerably shorter (median time to expiration of 35 days) compared to the more-processed menu (median time to expiration of 120 days).


“This study challenges the assumption that less-processed foods inherently translate to better diet quality,” explains Dr. Hess. “While some nutrient-dense foods classified as ultra-processed can meet dietary recommendations, the level of processing alone does not dictate nutritional value.”


Key findings also underscored that certain minimally processed foods categorized as ultra-processed by NOVA, such as unsweetened applesauce or ultrafiltered milk, can offer nutritional benefits despite their classification.


Dr. Hess emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of food processing and its relationship to diet quality. “The focus should be on the types of foods consumed rather than solely on their processing level. Both less-processed and more-processed diets can provide low-quality nutrition, challenging common perceptions about the health implications of food processing.”

Presented at NUTRITION 2024 by Mark Messina, PhD, the findings advocate for a reevaluation of how food processing categories are defined and utilized in dietary recommendations. The study prompts further research into refining nutritional guidelines to better reflect the diverse impacts of food choices on overall health and well-being.



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