Long neglected by nutritionists, food processing by the agri-food industry plays a significant role in the chronic disease epidemic.
Why it is important to identify highly processed foods
The notion of ultra-processed food is a recent one. It has been popularized by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in France by INRA researcher Anthony Fardet. They have published several studies that show that nutrition, by focusing on fats, carbohydrates or vitamins has neglected the impact of food processing. This can be summarized as follows: the more a food is processed (industrial), the more likely it is to have an adverse health effect, especially if consumed frequently.
Contrary to what is spontaneously believed, ultra-processed food are not limited to traditional junk food such as sodas or french fries. In fact, ultra-processed food represent 80% of the current supermarket offer, including on dietary, organic or “vegetarian” shelves (most vegetable steaks are ultra-processed food). These foods represent more than a third of the foods consumed by the French for example. According to the researchers, they are the leading cause of early death in large cities.
But how is an ultra-processed food defined? The NOVA classification, the version below is simplified, makes it possible to distinguish between foods according to their degree of processing.
Group 1: Unprocessed or slightly processed food
Unprocessed food is food obtained directly from plants or animals (e.g. vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk) and purchased for consumption without alteration after being taken from the wild.
Unprocessed foods are natural foods that have been washed, sorted, fractionated or ground, dried, fermented, pasteurized, cooled, frozen or otherwise processed without adding substances to the original food. The purpose of the transformations applied to unprocessed foods is to preserve them, and to make their storage possible and sometimes reduce the preparation time (sorting, cleaning), facilitate their digestion or make them more tasty.
Examples: Vegetables, tubers, roots or plain fruit, packaged, cut, chilled or frozen. Rice in bulk or in bags, pre-cooked or not; whole or shelled maize; wheat or other dried, polished or ground grains (flour, oatmeal, couscous…); fresh or dried pasta made of wheat and water flour; all types of beans; lentils, chickpeas and other dried vegetables; dried or pasteurised fruit juices without sugar or other added substances; fresh and dried mushrooms; aromatic plants, fresh or dried spices; fresh or dried meat of beef, pork, poultry and other species; pasteurised milk, UHT, in powder form; fresh and powdered eggs, milk-based yoghurt and lactic ferments, without sugar or powdered milk added; tea, herbal teas, coffee; tap water, spring water and mineral water.
Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients
They are substances extracted from natural foods or from nature itself by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, spraying, and refining. The purpose of the treatment is to obtain ingredients used in cooking, at home or in restaurants to season and cook raw or slightly processed foods and create a variety of pleasant dishes with them, such as soups and soups, salads, rice and bean dishes, cooked or grilled vegetables, bread, pies, cakes, homemade desserts.
Examples: Vegetable oils; coconut and animal fats (including butter, goose fat, bacon); table sugar, maple syrup (100%), molasses and honey; table salt.
Group 3: Processed foods
These are relatively simple products, made mainly with natural or slightly processed foods to which salt, sugar or other substances of common culinary use such as oil or vinegar have been added. The aim here is to extend the duration of consumption of the food and modify its organoleptic characteristics.
Examples: Preserved vegetables, dried vegetables, canned fruits and jars; nuts and salted seeds; smoked or salted fish, smoked or salted ham; canned sardines and tuna; cheeses, breads made from ingredients used in culinary preparations (wheat flour, yeast, water, salt, sugar, butter….); wine, beer, cider.
Group 4: Ultra-processed foods
These are food and beverage products whose manufacture involves several processing steps and techniques and which use a variety of ingredients, many of which are used exclusively by industry. The purpose of the treatment here is to create foods and beverages with a longer or shorter shelf life, cheap, easy to use, attractive and pleasant to taste and which are ready to be consumed or heated. Products typically consumed in the form of snacks and desserts or quick meals, which replace dishes that would be prepared from natural ingredients.
Industrial processing techniques include the fractionation of complete feedingstuffs into different compounds, the chemical modification of these compounds, the assembly of non-modified compounds with modified compounds via extrusion, milling or pre-frying, the addition of additives and cosmetic and economic agents (ACE) to make the final product more attractive… The ultra-transformed product thus obtained is then most often packaged in synthetic materials (plastics).
An ultra-processed product often contains sugar, salt, added fatty acids, most often combined, but also ingredients that are not found in the kitchen such as hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, ECAs and additives (artificial flavours, emulsifiers, colours, sweeteners, thickeners, gelling agents, preservatives, etc.). In short, authorized additives and “flavours and all food substances that are not normally used in cooking and that manufacturers use to imitate the organoleptic qualities of a raw food and their culinary preparation or to mask defects in the finished product. »
Examples : Confectionery, cookies, cakes, ice creams, soft drinks, sweetened juices and dairy products, sausages, chicken nuggets, breaded fish and other frozen ready-to-eat dishes, chips, dry goods such as cake mixes, bagged soups, instant noodles, sauces and “dressings”, and an infinite number of products such as packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, energy drinks, frozen or frozen pizzas, sugar substitutes, sweeteners, syrups (except 100% maple syrup). It should be noted that breads and bakery products become ultra-processed when, in addition to wheat flour, yeast, water and salt, they include substances not used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated vegetable fats, whey protein, gluten, emulsifiers and other additives.