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IPFS News Link • Food

"Deny, denounce, delay": The battle over the risk of ultra-processed foods


When the Brazilian nutritional scientist Carlos Monteiro coined the term "ultra-processed foods" 15 years ago, he established what he calls a "new paradigm" for assessing the impact of diet on health.

Monteiro had noticed that although Brazilian households were spending less on sugar and oil, obesity rates were going up. The paradox could be explained by increased consumption of food that had undergone high levels of processing, such as the addition of preservatives and flavorings or the removal or addition of nutrients.

But health authorities and food companies resisted the link, Monteiro tells the FT. "[These are] people who spent their whole life thinking that the only link between diet and health is the nutrient content of foods ... Food is more than nutrients."

Monteiro's food classification system, "Nova," assessed not only the nutritional content of foods but also the processes they undergo before reaching our plates. The system laid the groundwork for two decades of scientific research linking the consumption of UPFs to obesity, cancer, and diabetes.

Studies of UPFs show that these processes create food—from snack bars to breakfast cereals to ready meals—that encourages overeating but may leave the eater undernourished. A recipe might, for example, contain a level of carbohydrate and fat that triggers the brain's reward system, meaning you have to consume more to sustain the pleasure of eating it.

In 2019, American metabolic scientist Kevin Hall carried out a randomized study comparing people who ate an unprocessed diet with those who followed a UPF diet over two weeks. Hall found that the subjects who ate the ultra-processed diet consumed around 500 more calories per day, more fat and carbohydrates, less protein—and gained weight.

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