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The Rural Blog: New way of assessing food healthy vs. unhealthy could improve diets, but cut profits


What does ultra-processed food sound like? It sounds like the polyglycerol polyricinoleate in Hershey’s chocolate or the tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios, or more broadly, the protein isolates or emulsifiers that “aren’t normally found in a domestic kitchen,” reports Carol Ryan of The Wall Street Journal. “Growing scrutiny of the peculiar ingredients in popular snack foods might be bad news for their makers.”

Gummy worms are ultra-processed. (Photo by Karsten Winegeart, Unsplash, via Rural Blog)

Evaluating foods based on their ingredients vs. salt, sugar and fat content to determine if they are “ultra-processed” comes from “a way of classifying foods, called Nova, that emerged in Brazil over a decade ago,” Ryan explains. “It is also a new way to think about diet. Nova groups foods based on how intensively processed they are. Some scientists think that industrial processing of food itself might be harmful and encourage overeating.”

Nova’s evidence is controversial, but “it is being taken seriously, including at policy level. The U.S. government will give Americans fresh diet advice in 2025 as part of a review that happens once every five years,” Ryan reports. “For the first time, federal researchers and health experts will examine the relationship between ultra-processed foods and the risk of obesity. A scientific report is expected this year.”

Meanwhile, big food companies are monitoring the debate, which could cut into revenues.

“Ultra-processed snacks and meals are highly profitable. Major packaged food companies, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Nestlé, made an average operating margin of 17% over the past five years, according to FactSet data,” Ryan writes. “Products that fall under Nova’s UPF category make up roughly 57% of the average American and British diet and an even greater proportion for children.”

Some ingredients in processed foods are there to give food a longer shelf life, prevent waste or lower costs. According to a Barclays analysis, “products containing the most common preservative, emulsifier and sweetener additives were 5% cheaper than their category average,” Ryan reports. “Even foods that target health-conscious consumers — such as oat milk and plant-based meat — can be intensely processed, as manufacturers try to mimic the taste, texture and smell of animal products.”

The Rural Blog is a publication of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.


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