by Marion Nestle
Nov 2 2010

The food movement’s new frontier: “ultra-processing”

In the current issue of the online Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association (of which I am a charter member), Carlos Monteiro, a professor at the University of São Paulo writes “The big issue is ultra-processing.”  Because his Commentary is so lengthy, I am taking the liberty of extracting pieces from it, not always in the order presented.

The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed. That is to say, the big issue is food processing – or, to be more precise, the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing.

Monteiro makes it clear that all foods and drinks are processed to some extent.  Fresh apples are washed and, sometimes, waxed.  Drinking water is filtered.  Instead, he distinguishes three types of processing, depending on their nature, extent, and purpose:

  • Type 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that do not change the nutritional properties of the food.
  • Type 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients such as oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours, starches, and salt.  These are depleted of nutrients and provide little beyond calories (except for salt, which has no calories).
  • Type 3: Ultra-processed products that combine Type 2 ingredients (and, rarely, traces of Type 1).

The purpose of Type 3 ultra-processing is to create:

durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Such ultra-processed products are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration (‘long shelf life’), to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable (‘high organoleptic quality’) and often to be habit-forming. Typically they are designed to be consumed anywhere – in fast-food establishments, at home in place of domestically prepared and cooked food, and while watching television, at a desk or elsewhere at work, in the street, and while driving.

Monteiro argues: “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.”

As evidence, he notes that ultra-processed products as a group are:

  • Much more energy-dense than unprocessed and minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients taken together.
  • [Contain] oils, solid fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches [that] make them excessive in total fat, saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and short of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds, and of dietary fiber.
  • Relatively or even absolutely cheaper to manufacture, and sometimes – not always – relatively cheaper to buy.
  • Often manufactured in increasingly supersized packages and portions at discounted prices with no loss to the manufacturer.
  • Available in ‘convenience’ stores and other outlets often open late or even 24/7, and vended in machines placed in streets, gas stations, hospitals, schools and many other locations.
  • The main business of transnational and big national catering chains, whose outlets are also often open until late at night, and whose products are designed to be consumed also in the street, while working or driving, or watching television.
  • Promoted by lightly regulated or practically unregulated advertising that identifies fast and convenience food, soft drinks and other ultra-processed products as a necessary and integral part of the good life, and even, when the products are ‘fortified’ with micronutrients, as essential to the growth, health and well-being of children.

Overall, he says:

Their high energy density, hyper-palatability, their marketing in large and super-sizes, and aggressive and sophisticated advertising, all undermine the normal processes of appetite control, cause over-consumption, and therefore cause obesity, and diseases associated with obesity.

His groups the main points of his argument in three theses:

  • Diets mainly made up from combinations of processed ingredients and unprocessed and minimally processed foods, are superior to diets including substantial amounts of ultra-processed products.
  • Almost all types of ultra-processed product, including those advertised as ‘light’, ‘premium’, supplemented, ‘fortified’, or healthy in other ways, are intrinsically unhealthy.
  • Significant improvement and maintenance of public health always requires the use of law. The swamping of food systems by ultra-processed products can be controlled and prevented only by statutory regulation.

Lest there be any confusion about the significance of this proposal for public health nutrition, an accompanying editorial (unsigned but assumed to be by Geoffrey Cannon) poses a serious challenge: “Nutrition science: time to start again.”

This editorial is about the significance of food processing, and in particular of ‘ultra-processed’ food and drink products. It is also about the nature, purpose, scope and value of nutrition science, which as conventionally taught and practiced, is now widely perceived to have run into the buffers or, to change metaphor, to have painted itself into a corner.

The editorial argues that nutritionists’ focus on nutrients, rather than foods, has led to the assumption that if foods contain the same nutrients, they are the same—even though it is never possible to replicate the nutritional content of foods because too much about their chemical composition is still unknown.

This notion is an exquisite combination of stupidity and arrogance, or else of intelligence and cunning. For a start, similar results can only be of those chemical constituents that are at the time known, and actually measured.

These are important ideas, well worth consideration and debate.  I am struck by their relevance to the latest survey of soft drink availability in American elementary schools.  Despite the efforts of the Clinton Foundation and the voluntary actions of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, the availability of soft drinks to young school children increased from 49.% to 61% just in the year from 2006-07 to 2008-09.  Soft drinks, in Monteiro’s terms, are ultra-processed.  Doing something about them requires statutory regulation.

Consideration of the effects of ultra-processing might help us look at what we feed our kids in a more constructive way.  This is important work.

Addition: I should have mentioned that Monteiro’s approach is consistent with that of the people (including me) who worked with the Strategic Alliance in Oakland, CA to write Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists and Health Professionals ” Define Healthful Food.

The Alliance is California’s network of food and activity advocates, we’ve developed a definition of healthy food that asserts that truly healthful food comes from a food system where food is produced, processed, transported, and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable, and just.

If you agree with Setting the Record Straight, you can endorse it on the Strategic Alliance’s website.

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  • Another compelling argument for the need to move back to a whole or minimally processed diet. I think it’s important to continue publishing these articles as they will hopefully raise awareness over time.

    What is equally important, and not talked about enough, is HOW to make this shift happen. It starts one kitchen at a time, one family at a time making the commitment to eating healthy whole foods. In my health coaching practice, I see time and again that people simply don’t know how to cook this way anymore. Young parents were raised in families where little to no cooking skills were taught because everything was becoming readily available pre-packaged in the store.

    I’ve helped people as young as 22 and as old as 65 to learn to cook whole foods again, and it’s such a gift to be able to give. It’s also something that consistently surprises me – these essential skills that have been passed down from generation to generation that are simply disappearing.

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  • Anthro

    @ Rachel Assuncoa

    I agree with you and have posted similar thoughts here and elsewhere. I am heartened that you are involved in reversing this awful trend. We have to realize that these ultra-processed products are used, not only because they are ultra-available and heavily marketed, but because a whole generation of people now see these products as normal food and don’t know how to obtain anything else. I am particularly distressed that co-ops and other “health food” entities are as full of this stuff as any mainstream market. I keep telling these people that organic cheesits, chips, sweetened drinks (no matter how “zen” the bottle looks), and candy bars (disguised as nutrition bars) will make you just as fat as any other junk food.

    I have recently been in the market for a new kitchen range and was disturbed to see that the bullet points for one fairly high end range included numerous mentions of how well the thing could produce “perfect” chicken nuggets!


    Much of this information is also discussed in Dr. David Kessler’s book: “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite”.

  • I hope this doesn’t further complicate the problem. Calling foods ultra-processed just brings in another category of food. In the other direction, it reminds me of the word superfoods, um, you mean fruits and vegetables?

    Dr. Nestle, your famous 16 words and Michael Pollan’s famous 7 words pretty much says it all.

    It seems that as time marches on, we keep making the concept more difficult. It ain’t that hard.

    Ken Leebow

  • Pete

    Were these foods born out of the demand for convenience or did the food industry create that “need’? Interesting question. I mean did food companies decide to make these products because they are cheaper (increase profit margin) and “innovative” (something new all the time), and only THEN decide to MARKET them as convenient… or…. was there a very real shift in time management among people where the need was there for convenience food and food companies just found a profitable way to satisfy that need? Maybe a little bit of both?

    Either way, one thing is indisputable, the food industry today has made it terribly inconvenient to eat fresh, unprocessed foods. You have to seek out organic produce and meat, then pay a premium for it. You can’t just go to the corner market and buy strawberries anymore.

  • Thank you for highlighting this article. For those of us advocating for a healthy food system, it is critical to reflect upon just what healthful food is. Highly-processed — or in this case ultra-processed — foods surely do not fit the bill, even if they are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

    At Strategic Alliance — California’s network of food and activity advocates, we’ve developed a definition of healthy food that asserts that truly healthful food comes from a food system where food is produced, processed, transported, and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable, and just. If you’d like to join the chorus supporting this more comprehensive definition, sign on here:

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  • Thank you for posting this! I’m representing Eating Healthy NYC. We’re currently working to educate New Yorkers about the dangers of not paying attention to what they’re consuming. Your page is great! We were hoping you might be interested in joining our online community ( and contributing to the discussion about healthy eating, or just encouraging our fans to check out your site.

    Thanks again for such an informative article =)

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  • Sheila

    It seems to me we keep forgetting that Mother Nature has designed most foods to not need much processing or ultra processing…most fresh fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw, just need washed. Most of the rest can be simply steamed or zapped in the microwave. Most meat, poultry, and fish can be simply grilled or microwaved with fresh herbs, quickly. There is not a “fast food” outlet in the country that can get me through a lunch line faster than I can grab a couple hands full of veggies and fruits and a non-fat yogurt out of the frig, and nuke a piece of chicken or salmon in the microwave, then throw it all on a plate or in a bag to go to work. The key factor making this work is thinking ahead when shopping to buy the fresh food and have it in the frig.

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