The risks of Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs)

The obesity crisis is, at last, prompting some governments to take action on the marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat. But the risks of Ultra-Processing to health, biodiversity and the environment are often overlooked (breastmilk substitues are ultra-processed and increasingly contain Palm Oil derived from deforestation). In order to be globally traded, products need to stay on the shelves for 2 years or more, so many non-food ingredients are added to stabilize, emulsify, thicken, regulate acidity and act as anti-oxidants. These are all “permitted” by Codex Alimentarius standards, with their safety declared not by independent and convincing science but on the basis of political consensus and claims of “history of safe use”

Nova is a new classification based on the degree of processing of food and nutrient content and is gaining ground worldwide.  But is a complex problem to monitor. The UK government is planning to ban British supermarkets will be banned from selling key commodities sourced from illegally deforested land. India is taking steps to promote local food grains, fruits and vegetables and India’s Nutrition Advocacy and Public interest (NAPi) and IBFAN’s BPNI are campaigning to reduce consumption  of UPFs.
Links to some useful Webinars

IBFAN India (BPNI) What you need to know about Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)?
Bangladesh: BBF, NNS, IPHN: International Scientific webinar: Environmental issues and Ultra-processing.

How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket Bee Wilson, The Guardian 13th February
Policy responses to ultra-processed foods in global context -Phillip Baker, Deakin University

Ultra-processed foods’ impacts on health: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Santiago de Chile, 2019,  Barry Popkin, Global Food Research Program University of North Carolina:

Ultra-processed foods and beverages increase significantly the risks of obesity, and other noncommunicable diseases, and most causes of mortality, while reduced consumption has significant effects on health and well-being

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are a heterogenous category of processed foods. Processed food is food that is altered from its natural state, such as freezing; drying; milling; canning; mixing; or adding salt, sugar, fat, or other additives. Here we define ultra-processed foods as multi-ingre-dient, industrially formulated mixtures. UPFs are formulated mixtures highly processed to the extent that they are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal sources. Most are manufactured to be ready to eat or ready to heat, requiring no preparation before quick, easy consumption.


Media Brief : 1, September 2020

Rashtriya Poshan Mah 2020: 

Should India Adopt NOVA Classification of Food?

A new classification based on the degree of processing of food and nutrient content, is gaining ground worldwide to protect human health.

September 7,2020. New Delhi. On 30 August Prime Minister Modi in his “Mann Ki Baat” appealed to everyone to “eat nutritious food and stay healthy” and advised people to include local food grain, fruits and vegetables in their diet plans. The Nutrition Advocacy and Public interest (NAPi) and the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) have jointly launched a new campaign in India that aims at reducing the consumption of unhealthy ultra processed foods by the people of India, infants, children, the young and old.

“We are doing this because of the new scientific evidence that has emerged during the past decade showing that increased consumption of ultra processed foods is harmful to the health of humans” said Professor HPS Sachdev, a member of NAPi.

In a letter dated September 1, 2020 to Dr. Harshvardhan, Union Minister of Health, Government of India, the two public interest groups have shared a “Statement and Call to Action on Consumption of Ultra-processed Foods”, which has been endorsed by generation of old and young budding 125 scientists from over 27 States of India.

The Statement calls upon the Ministry of Health and FSSAI, to adopt the NOVA (means new) Classification of foods that has its roots in Brazil. By this classification foods are easily identified into four groups based on their degree of processing not on the nutrient content.

Said Professor Carlos Monteiro from University of Sao Paulo, who researched the dietary patterns in Brazil; “ We found that consumption of processed foods made people eat more, and led to increased obesity and type -2 diabetes. This was happening in spite of the fact that people were buying less sugar and oil and consumption of highly processed or ultra-processed, ready to eat, sugary and packaged food products had gone up. We looked at the extent and purpose of food processing, and developed the ‘NOVA’ food classification, which did not depend on food nutrient contents”.

NOVA has four food groups: 1) Unprocessed /minimally processed foods, 2) processed culinary ingredients, 3) processed foods, and 4) ultra-processed foods (UPFs). The official Brazilian Dietary Guidelines, based on NOVA, has four central recommendations: 1) base your diet on a diversity of Group 1 foods; 2) use small amounts of Group 2 ingredients (salt, oil, vinegar, sugar) to transform Group 1 foods into diversified and delicious dishes and meals; 3) consume Group 3 foods (such as bread and cheese) as part of dishes and meals based on Group 1 foods; 4) Avoid Group 4 foods.

Available scientific evidence reveals that 10% increase in the consumption of UPFs increases the chances of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer by approximately 10%. In children, obesity and asthma are higher in those consuming UPFs. A recent review of published papers indicated a positive association between UPFs consumption and risk of several health outcomes.  The Food and Agricultural Organisation, (FAO) recognizes the health risks due to increased consumption of UPFs and concludes that policies should contribute to actions that fully take into account the nature, extent and purpose of food processing, designed always to protect the overall immediate and indefinite good health and well-being of populations, the living and physical world, and the planet.

In July 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, in its Statement said,  “States cannot remain passive in the face of NCDs. They should adopt an integral approach to reduce the consumption of unhealthy food products through the use of a broader set of laws and regulations” 

The negative health outcomes of consumption of UPFs call for the attention of Indian policy makers as in India consumption of UPFs is rising.  Should India not take action to halt its rise of UPFs and work towards a food transition, which is healthier?

“This is where adopting NOVA Food Classification comes in, a policy that can change the way we deal with our food systems. Periodic monitoring of food consumption patterns would also be required”, says Keshav Desiraju, former Health Secretary and chair of NAPi.

Identifying ultra-processed foods is easy by simply watching food labels and can be part of the guidelines followed by local language campaigns to educate people about UPF consumption and its harmful impact. NAPi and BPNI have developed a simple, understandable document “The Unseen Dangers of Ultra-processed Food” in several languages for the benefit of the people of India. This helps in understanding the risks and identification. EnglishHindiGujaratiPunjabiAssameseBangla, KannadaMarathiManipuri (Meetei mayek), Manipuri (Bengali Script)


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