Additives, ultra-processed foods, climate change, the pandemic and other food stories  

Food continues to dominate our newswaves. I compiled some of the most interesting stories to me. I would love to receive your comments and perspectives.

Tufts University developed a scale to rate healthfulness of over 8000 foods (1). I tend to be skeptical of any such scale. They don’t tell us much about individual foods and go by serving size which may or may not relate to how much we eat at a time. Such scales provide guides to product developers to make a product look healthier than it is. Having said that, Tufts presents a much more useful tool than NOVA. In NOVA Fiber One is as lethal as a Twinkie. Also, NOVA considers homemade sugar cookies healthy but Sugar Smacks unhealthy.

NOVA says these two products are equally unhealthy. Do you agree?

Predictable cries of protest greeted the Tufts’ Compass scale. Could a bowl of Lucky Charms be better than a fried egg? Or are sweet-potato chips healthier than a grilled cheese sandwich? It is easy to cherry-pick when comparing selected items. Judge it from a holistic standpoint. Linn Steward shares some reservations about the scale. She also adds some excellent insight. Her approach focuses on evaluating meals rather than on individual products. Her analysis differentiates between fruit-and-vegetable eaters and food junkies. The profile also relates sodium consumption relative to calorie intake.

FOOD ADDITIVES. How can we lower our chances for cardiovascular diseases? Try replacing sugar, fat, and salt with herbs and spices. If added at home, sugar, salt, herbs, and spices are culinary ingredients by NOVA standards. When part of an industrial formulation they are food additives. Lowering sugar and salt at home or during processing are good ideas. The problem with herbs and spices is that their acceptability varies between individuals. A home cook can navigate likes and dislikes within a family. A food processor has more difficulty pleasing a larger, more variable audience.

Also on the additive front, look for an increase in brown rice syrup on product labels in the next few years. Preferred to table sugar and other sweeteners this additive is more ‘natural’. It contains maltotriose, maltose, and glucose. Note that the first two sugars break down to glucose in our body. Diabetics should not double down on glucose. Brown rice syrup also comes with higher levels of arsenic than other sweeteners.

Clean labels are still a thing on the net. Clean ingredients don’t have chemical-sounding names and are “not artificial or synthetic.” The fewer preservatives and additives the better. Buzzwords on a label that scream clean are ‘fresh’, ‘natural’, ‘nutritious’, and ‘organic’. Marketers are skillful at arranging these terms on a label to make the product seem better than it is! It turns out that there are downsides to clean eating. Resulting obsessions lead to eating disorders in about 20% of clean eaters. Practiced with discretion, adherents eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and salt.

Breaking news! A federal court ruling allows food companies to continue evaluating GRAS status of new additives. Food activists abhor the practice. As I understand it, these additives are not exotic chemicals pulled out of the blue. They are like other ingredients found in foods and used in the same way in a new product. The company sends data to the FDA for final approval before the additive appears in a the product. For more details on the process see the FDA explanation online. A special thanks to George Cavender for his help.

ULTRA-PROCESSED FOOD (UPF) is another key buzzword trending on the net. Gut inflammation as affected by diet is also in the news. A study from the University of Gottingen praises high-fiber diets. It suggests that plant proteins are better for the gut than animal proteins. Such proteins include those from peas and lentils. Does this mean that plant-based meats are superior to meat from animals? Stay tuned at this site.

While we are at it, a recent study correlated Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and UPFs. Correlation is not causation. Correlation within large datasets is the main evidence linking UPFs and chronic disease. Note that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is not the same as IBD. A recent study associated UPFs as a cause of IBS. Nutrition researchers identified a much more direct relationship between dietary constituents and IBS. A low-FODMAP diet detects offending compounds. Potential offenders include lactose, wheat oligosaccharides, sorbitol, and other components. All these components are natural chemicals found in whole foods. Sorbitol, a component of chewing gum, is also found in fruits like peaches and apples.

Kevin Hall was the lead investigator on the NIH study on UPFs. He calls for development of a biological mechanism before condemning all UPFs (2). I suspect that such an effort will need to break the category down into subgroups. The biggest problem with NOVA classification is the vast number of UPF products. It’s almost as if NOVA designers would like to ban all food processing. Case in point, salted meat and fish contain much higher levels of sodium than most UPFs. Not all UPFs are high in sodium.

The PANDEMIC AND OTHER DISEASES are still with us and food associations abound! Forget your flu shots. Boost your immune system with superfoods like green tea and salmon. Have we learned nothing from COVID-19? Oh, anyone who doesn’t like salmon can marinate it in brown sugar and Dijon mustard before grilling it! Doesn’t the brown sugar compromise its superfood status? Cleatus Bell Jr. can’t understand why some people will eat processed food but refuse to be vaccinated. He needs to talk to Aaron Rodgers about his concerns over the vaccine. Sounds to me as the same rationale clean eaters have about not eating processed foods.

Public health identified obesity is an underlying medical condition affecting COVID-19 response. We heard about this association early in the pandemic. I have seen little follow-up on this issue. Either I am looking in the wrong places or there are few datasets available for or against this supposition. The issue still concerns Dennis Gordon (3). I value him as an accomplished nutrition researcher and a friend.

CLIMATE CHANGE. The NY Times illustrates our mission should we choose to accept it. Time is running out, and our carbon budget dwindles. A review of recent literature on human adaptation to climate change is available (4). The greatest challenge in Europe and Oceania will be on health as residents adapt in urban settings. Elsewhere, adaptation challenges will be in food and agriculture. Changes in food production and consumption will be at the forefront. Food security in Africa and Asia will become an even greater problem as we move forward.

On a note closer to home, the flavor of a morning cup of coffee may suffer. Growing conditions around the world threaten the bright, rich body of that cup. Most of us will never notice these subtle changes. Connoisseurs have already detected the flavor difference. Expect such changes to continue without major improvements in crop management and agricultural technology. Another target for the American diet is beef. If we are to eat meat, Tufts recommends seafood over chicken over beef. No wonder that the meat alternatives feature beef. It is doubtful that we will get to net-zero without a major decline in meat consumption. Meat eaters need a reasonable alternative. Not everyone is buying the climate-change argument on alternative meats. With the inexorable climate-change clock moving forward, are we going to get our act together with a plan?

HAVE YOU SEEN THESE ARTICLES? Jonathan Katz, a contributor to this site, has struck again. Check out his three-part series on autism, food, and cooking. He cautions us not to stereotype autistic people. Then he delves into what and how autistic people cook. The final post in the series presents six lessons we can learn from autistic cooks. I am pleased to recommend Jonathan’s blog. And the Angry Chef tells us how the world’s deadliest thing has medical applications.


Next week: Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups


(1) Mozaffarian, D., N.H. El-Abbadi, M. O’Hearn, J. Erndt-Marino, W.A. Masters, P. Jacques, P. Shi, J.B. Blumberg and R. Misha, 2021. Food compass is a nutrient profiling system using expanded characteristics for assessing healthfulness of foods. Nature Food 2:809-818.

(2) Tobias, D.K. and K.D. Hall, 2021. Eliminate or reformulate ultra-processed foods? Biological mechanisms matter. Cell Metabolism 33:1-2.

(3) Gordon, D.T. 2020. Obesity may play a role in COVID-19 outcomes. Food Technology 74(6):88-89.

(4) Berrang-Ford, L., A.R. Siders, A. Lesnikowski, and 103 others, 2021. A systematic global stocktake of evidence on human adaptation to climate change. Nature Climate Change 11:989-1000.

4 thoughts on “Additives, ultra-processed foods, climate change, the pandemic and other food stories  

  1. Many thanks for including my comments on The Food Compass. No tool is perfect and no system is a replacement for common sense. I continue to look favorably on NOVA. During our many conversations on the topic, I found myself slowly arrived at the realization that counting additives and assessing even sophisticated technological processes would not in and of themselves serve as a evidenced based criteria for determining the healthiness or unhealthiness of a given food. And simultaneously I came to realize that for my palate at least taste was a good differentiator. But taste is 100% subjective, so I can’t use what taste right to me as an objective criteria. I have been wrestling with that conundrum for a while now with no resolution in sight so my plan is to enjoy the Holliday season and pick up the jagged pieces in the new year.


    1. Thank you for your comments. I wish you a happy holiday season as well. There may be some opportunities to discuss either NOVA or Compass or both for a professional magazine in more depth in the new year. I also plan on more discussions on the blog about additives/processes and obesity. Stay tuned.


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