The Great Ultra-processed Foods Debates

If you are interested in ultra-processed foods, I hope that you watched the debate at IFT FIRST either in person or rebroadcast online. I confess to being skeptical at first, but I do believe that it was well worth the effort. I hope that it has brought out the issue to the IFT community where it has been lurking underground. A difficulty I had with the debate is that it came across as a fight over good and bad ultra-processed foods. The gap between those supporting ultra-processed foods and those opposed to them is far wider than the debate suggested. Be that as it may, it is a very good start!

Prior to the debate at IFT, Linn Steward, a frequent contributor to this blog, and I had a debate on NOVA and ultra-processed foods in FT. Bill McDowell, Corrine Calice, and Lori Conley have made it possible for me to reproduce these comments on this blog with permission.

 Why NOVA Misses the Mark

Robert Shewfelt

March 18, 2022

Dire warnings to avoid processed foods no longer grace the internet. Turns out, processed foods are not so bad after all.

Instead, now we need to watch out for heavily processed foods, hyper-processed foods, or ultra-processed foods. Michael Pollan warns us to avoid any processed foods with more than five ingredients. Carlos Monteiro codified these additive-filled foods as ultra-processed in 2009 and declared them unhealthy in a classification scheme called NOVA.

I don’t argue that all processed foods are good for us. Overeating these products can lead to obesity and other health issues. I do object to the arbitrariness of the NOVA classes. It makes no sense to write off 60% of the American food supply as unhealthy and declare the other 40% healthy.

For example, a popular commercial cupcake, a high-fiber breakfast cereal, a plant-based burger, and a shot of rum are all ultra-processed and equally unhealthy under NOVA. Not to worry, as a homemade brownie, New England clam chowder, a 16-ounce T-bone steak, and as much beer as you can drink are not ultra-processed and equally healthy.

How is a food classified as ultra-processed in addition to the five-ingredient rule? It contains an unacceptable additive. These additives are listed on the NOVA website.

How do we know that ultra-processed products are unhealthy? For one thing, many additives sound like chemicals and are hard to pronounce. Which beverage would you prefer? A fresh mango juice with added caffeine, trimethylpurine dione, or 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine? Spoiler alert: they are all the same chemical, with differing levels of pronounceability.

Let’s say we lived in a world where coffee was the only caffeinated beverage, but the population didn’t know which molecule was the stimulant. Some wise food chemist discovers that it is a molecule named 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine. She then develops a beverage that contains this useful, novel compound. Coffee would still be an acceptable drink, but many consumers would shy away from a product with such an unpronounceable chemical on the ingredients list.

Ultra-processed foods are more about additives than about processes. One of the few processes forbidden is extrusion. But again, the rules are arbitrary. Theoretically, an extruded product without forbidden additives would be acceptable. Extruded cheesy snacks fit the pattern. But pasta is also extruded. Are all pastas, even homemade ones, therefore ultra-processed?

Some additives, like sugar and salt, are acceptable to NOVA if added by home cooks or chefs as culinary ingredients. But when added to a commercial product, sugar and salt are among the ingredients condemned by ultra-processed critics.

In a former life, I was a research scientist grubbing for funds from federal agencies. One line of study was understanding how certain fruits and vegetables became injured at low-temperature storage above the freezing point. Any hope of receiving funds for chilling injury of bell peppers required a detailed description of a possible biological mechanism.

“Back when I was in school, correlation did not imply causation. Has that rule been repealed?”

No such reference to mechanism is required of ultra-processed investigators. All they have to do is to correlate the entire mix of ultra-processed foods with a host of chronic diseases in massive datasets. Back when I was in school, correlation did not imply causation. Has that rule been repealed?

Are some products high in sugar, salt, or fat more lethal than others low in these components? Maybe. But it’s just as likely some of these products are healthy and misclassified.

Take plant-based meat products. Most of these foods appeared in the market after the development of the NOVA concept. They were not coded in these studies. They are guilty by association simply because they contain unauthorized additives.

Are all so-called ultra-processed foods toxic, addictive, and unhealthy? I don’t think so. Are some unhealthy when eaten to excess? Probably. Before we condemn 60% of the U.S. food supply, let’s sort out those that pose a danger from those that don’t. And let’s find a true biological mechanism rather than relying on questionable studies of mass correlation. FT

The opinions expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.


Robert Shewfelt, PhD, is a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, and author of In Defense of Processed Foods.

Are NOVA’s Critics Missing an Important Point?

Linn Steward

June 21, 2022

Global rates of obesity continue to increase. Government policy makers and health-care professionals are desperate to do something. Anything. And NOVA, a crude but useful tool used by nutrition researchers to map chronic health conditions to degree of processing, is attracting attention.

There’s plenty to criticize about NOVA. Its four food classification groups are at best squishy, at worst downright arbitrary. And significant gaps of logic are emerging now that food scientists and nutrition researchers are starting to take a serious look.

Still, I believe Carlos Monteiro is onto something, and I’d like to explain how I came to that conclusion.

Monteiro, now a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of São Paulo’s School of Public Health, started his career in the 1970s working as a young pediatrician in poor rural villages and urban slums of Brazil’s largest city. Over the next three decades, he was able to map eating habits and chronic disease, and his observations became the basis for the NOVA food classification system.

Complex is how I’d describe my attraction to NOVA.

I currently work in recipe analysis and food labeling, but despite my analytic inclination, I’m a foodie at heart and love to cook. From time to time, I’ve been privileged to work with some wonderful chefs, and it’s during these sessions that I came to realize the appeal NOVA has for people who cook.

NOVA’s inherent “squishiness,” which makes academics, food scientists, and my fellow dietitians so crazy, doesn’t bother chefs. The best cooks understand the complexity of simple cooking. They start with fresh ingredients. Freshness depends on seasons, localities, climate, and other variables. Fresh ingredients are exactly what gets classified in NOVA as Group 1, minimally processed foods.

Placing fats, sugars, and salt in NOVA Group 2, processed culinary ingredients, also makes sense because that’s how chefs cook. Particular choices or combinations always depend on culture, tradition, and personal taste. As for NOVA Group 3, processed foods, every culture has developed its own unique set of traditionally processed ingredients. Up until recently, adding salt, sugar, or fat was how foods were kept safe.

“All I need to do is take off my analytic hat and put on my chef’s cap and NOVA starts to make sense to me too.”

– Linn Steward, RDN, recipe analyst and food and nutrition consultant , Gourmet Metrics

Once I take off my analytic hat and put on my chef’s cap, NOVA starts to make sense to me. The subjective experience of eating. Tastes. Smells. Sounds. Joys. Pleasures. Textures. Terroir. Traditions. Cultures.

When I put my analytic hat back on, I see the arbitrariness, absurdity, and disorderliness of the classification system. And I agree that until researchers are able to find causal mechanisms, the extent to which industrially formulated foods are to blame for the dramatic rise in obesity rates remains a matter of speculation.

I am not a food scientist. But I have spent 30 years working in weight loss and studying the science of nutrition as it applies to metabolic health. Experience has taught me that the behavioral approach to weight loss only works for some people, so we must look elsewhere. Obesity is also a complex issue, but I think it’s likely that researchers will identify aspects of food processing that are a contributing factor.

Food is messy. It doesn’t always fit neatly into boxes or groups or graphs or spreadsheets. My business is based on reducing the radiant complexity of food to listing nutrients on a label or running numbers on a recipe or researching a health claim for a client. But I know those numbers don’t come close to capturing our collective human culinary legacy.

Eating is a subjective experience based on individual occurrences. I never ate a traditional Brazilian home-cooked meal in 1980s São Paulo, but I believe that meal served a need that was valid. I am attracted to NOVA because the classification system acknowledges that food is more than just the sum of its nutrient parts.

The expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.


Linn Steward, RDN, is a recipe analyst and food and nutrition consultant (

Next week: Next-generation plant-based foods

10 thoughts on “The Great Ultra-processed Foods Debates

  1. Most people are untrained in science, and seek rules that help them avoid its logic and need for numbers. We need to believe IN impossibles (miracles) to distort reality enough to stay sane.
    Steward lists functions of eating beyond nutrition that affect our choices, and is thus ahead of those who want nutritional reasons for their decisions.
    Not everyone can eat what they believe .. that’s a rich-country luxury and even here it’s not for all. Time and money are not endless.
    If you deal with obesity it gets even more complicated. A visit to my med offices and labs are a jarring lesson in what is.
    There’s more but too much for here.
    Processing and ingredient number and even freshness mean less than we think. Biology and chemistry and quantity and the unique biology of individuals are what matters, but that denies the miracle part. Seeing that is to lose its power.


      1. Yes I have an alternate perspective and I ‘d really like comment on that, the need for people to believe what they want to be true and therefore see science as a challenge. With science, conclusion needs evidence, probability matters, quantity matters and fear comes along with the awe.


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