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Ultra-processed food

Ultra-processed food


The largest food and drink producers in the UK are dependent upon selling ultra-processed food. What’s the cost and why does it matter?

In 2009, Carlos Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, published a pioneering paper that redefined ultra processed food using the ‘NOVA system’. 

As Monteiro writes, “NOVA classifies all foods into four groups. One of these, termed ultra-processed foods, is made up of snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other product types formulated mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents. Ultra-processed foods are made possible by use of many types of additive, including those that imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or culinary preparations made from foods.”

Using the NOVA methodology, Tortoise’s Better Food Index has found that seven out of ten products in a sample of the portfolios of the UK’s biggest food companies are ultra-processed.

“The point of ultra-processed food, remember, is not about nourishing you, it’s invented for profits,” says Dr Chris van Tulleken, an infectious disease doctor at University College London Hospitals and author of Ultraprocessed People. 

“A lot of the time, it’s taking the cheapest possible materials, almost waste products from the rest of the food industry and repurposing them and trying to get them into the human food chain where they become really valuable.”

Ultra-processed foods are also linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and early death, which is why, in 2014, the Brazilian government advised people to avoid these types of food and began treating them as the most pressing issue in public health. 

Some companies are thinking about reformulating their products because of pressure from their shareholders, but for Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Deakin University in Australia, that is not enough.

“I’m afraid we do have to be very bold”, he told Tortoise.

“Maybe it’s a Robin Hood type approach, where we do start maybe making the more nutritious foods more affordable by some sort of tax on the ultra processed foods.”

Read more about Tortoise’s Better Food Index.