by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Ultraprocessed

Sep 5 2023

British Nutrition Foundation vs. concept of Ultra-Processed Food

I’m always surprised when the nutrition community opposes evidence for the association of ultra-processed foods with poor health outcomes.

I read an article about such opposition from the British Nutrition Foundation.

Bridget Benelam, a BNF spokesperson, explained: For many of us when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly. These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.

I looked up the position statement of the British Nutrition Foundation.

At present, the British Nutrition Foundation believes that due to the lack of agreed definition, the need for better understanding of mechanisms involved and concern about its usefulness as a tool to identify healthier products, the concept of UPF does not warrant inclusion within policy (e.g. national dietary guidelines).

I also looked up its “Why trust us?” statement.

Our funding comes from: membership subscriptions; donations and project grants from food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; contracts with government departments; conferences, publications and training; overseas projects; funding from grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities.  Our corporate members and committee membership are listed on our website and in our annual reports.

With some diligent searching, I did indeed manage to find the list of corporate members.

Front group anyone?  Take a look.

Current members
AHDB (Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board)

Aldi Stores Ltd

Associated British Foods


ASDA Stores Ltd

British Sugar plc

Cargill Inc

Coca Cola

Costa Coffee

Danone Ltd


General Mills

Greggs plc

Innocent Drinks Ltd

International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.

J Sainsbury Plc

Kellogg Europe Trading Ltd

Kerry Taste & Nutrition

KP Snacks Limited

Lidl GB


Marks and Spencer plc

Mars UK Ltd

McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd

Mitchells & Butlers

Mondelez International

National Farmers’ Union Trust Company Ltd

Nestlé UK Ltd

Nestlé Nutrition

Nomad Foods Europe

PepsiCo UK Ltd


Premier Foods


Slimming World



Subway UK & Ireland

Tata Global Beverages Ltd

Tate & Lyle www.tate&

Tesco Plc

The Co-operative Group Ltd

Uber Eats

UK Flour Millers

Waitrose & Partners



Wm Morrisons Supermarkets plc



Sustaining Members

Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board

ASDA Stores Ltd

Associated British Foods

Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland

Danone UK Ltd

International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.

J Sainsbury plc

Kellogg Europe

Marks and Spencer plc

Mondelez International

Nestlé UK Ltd

PepsiCo UK Ltd

Tate & Lyle


Sustaining members agree to provide a donation to the British Nutrition Foundation for at least three years to support our wider charitable work focussing on consumer education, and engagement with the media, government, schools and health professionals. 

Help us improve

Aug 2 2023

Do people understand what ultra-processed means? Yes, they do.

My email and Twitter (sorry, X) feeds are full of arguments about the NOVA classification of foods, which divides foods into four categories:

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
  3. Processed foods
  4. Ultra-processed foods

By this classification system, you don’t need to worry about the first three categories.  The only one that matters is #4, associated strongly with poor health and demonstrated in one clinical trial to induce over-eating; ultra-processed foods are formulated to make them irresistable so you can’t eat just one.

At issue is the definition, with critics arguing that ultra-processed foods are so confusingly defined that nobody can figure out what they are.

That has not been my experience in talking about ultra-processed foods.  As far as I can tell, people get the concept right away, which is one reason why the food industry opposes the concept so strongly.

A new study confirms my view.  I first read about it in Food Navigator, a newsletter I read daily:

NOVA classification matches consumer instincts, study findsThe NOVA classification system is used to ascertain whether foods are minimally processed, processed or ‘ultra-processed’. A new study has found that people’s perceptions of foods and their processing levels usually align with their NOVA classification…. Read more

I went immediately to the study: Perceived degree of food processing as a cue for perceived healthiness: The NOVA system mirrors consumers’ perceptions,
Alenica Hässig, Christina Hartmann, Luisma Sanchez-Siles, Michael Siegrist, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 110, 2023, 104944,

Its main points:

  • Consumers had negative associations of foods produced by the industry.
  • Perceived degree of processing was a cue for consumers’ evaluation of food healthiness.
  • Laypeople’s perception of food processing was in line with the NOVA classification.

I”d say the NOVA classification is doing exactly what it is supposed to, and misunderstanding it is not an issue.


A reader writes that she is pushing back on this post suggesting (correctly) that I did not read the study carefully.  She points out:

  • Its authors work for a food company that might have a conflicted interest.
  • Some of its methods seem dubious [I don’t agree about all her points].

She concludes: “We should all be careful about rushing in, reading abstracts & author’s conclusions and making comments, without first reading the study in its entirety.”

She’s right.  Apologies.

Jul 21 2023

Why ultra-processed foods matter: the state of world hunger

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. released its annual State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report last week.  Its conclusions are sobering.

Global hunger is still far above pre-pandemic levels. It is estimated that between 690 and 783 million people in the world faced hunger in 2022. This is 122 million more people than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the increase in global hunger observed in the last two years has stalled and, in 2022, there were about 3.8 million fewer people suffering from hunger than in 2021. The economic recovery from the pandemic has contributed to this, but there is no doubt that the modest progress has been undermined by rising food and energy prices magnified by the war inUkraine. There is no room for complacency, though, as hunger is still on the rise throughout Africa, Western Asia and the Caribbean.

Ultra-processed foods are a critical part of this story.  The word “processed” comes up 264 times in this report; “highly processed” comes up 99 times .  Some examples:

  • Healthy diets are essential for achieving food security goals and improving nutritional outcomes. A healthy diet…is based on a wide range of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, balanced across food groups, while it restricts the consumption of highly processed foods and drink products…Eating a healthy diet throughout the life cycle is critical for preventing all forms of malnutrition, including child stunting and wasting, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight or obesity. It also helps reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
  • The unfinished agendas to reduce stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiency, along with rising overweight and obesity, represent the current challenge to address multiple forms of malnutrition. Malnutrition in all its forms is related to poor diets, the rise of low-cost
    nutrient-poor foods and the increasing availability of highly processed foods in rural areas.
  • Supply-side factors, including globalized technology in food production, transportation and marketing, coupled with an increase in demand for readily available foods, have contributed to a substantial expansion of supermarkets, hypermarkets, food deliveries and other convenience retailers. However, these are also associated with increased supply and spread of energy-dense and highly processed foods.
  • However, urbanization has also contributed to the spread and consumption of processed and highly processed foods, which are increasingly cheap, readily available and marketed, with private sector small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and larger companies often setting the nutrition landscape. Cost comparisons of individual food items and/or food groups from existing studies indicate that the cost of nutritious foods – such as fruits, vegetables and animal source foods – is typically higher than the cost of energy-dense foods high in fats, sugars and/or salt, and of staple foods, oils and sugars.
  • The dynamics of supply and demand for processed foods, however, are complex. There has been a surge on the supply side, with small and medium enterprises and large private companies alike making massive aggregate investments in all types of processed foods (from minimally to highly processed) in response to demand. At the same time, aggressive marketing and relatively low pricing – and even interference in policies to curb consumption of highly processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages – are driving up consumption.

The report emphasizes the importance of food processing in contributing to poor diets and health.

What is to be done?  From the Brief summary:

Leveraging connectivity across the rural–urban continuum will require adequate governance mechanisms and institutions to coordinate coherent investment beyond sectoral and administrative boundaries. To this end, subnational governments can play a key role in designing and implementing policies beyond the traditional top-down approach. Approaches to agrifood systems governance should ensure policy coherence among local, regional and national settings through the engagement of relevant agrifood systems stakeholders at all levels.

I read this as saying what’s need is community-based, bottom up approaches at the local level.  That’s a great place to start.  Go for it.



Jul 20 2023

Ultra-processed pushback #4: a debate

The British journal, Public Health Nutrition, published a debate about ultra-processed foods this month.

Invited commentaries

CON:  Michael Gibney.  Ultra-processed foods in public health nutrition: the unanswered questions,

Several definitions of the degree of processing have been proposed. However, when each of these is used on a common database of nutritional, clinical and anthropometric variables, the observed effect of high intakes of highly processed food, varies considerably.. Moreover, assigning a given food by nutritional experts, to its appropriate level of processing, has been shown to be variable. Thus, the subjective definitions of the degree of food processing and the coding of foods according to these classifications is prone to error…Another issue that need[s] resolution is the relative importance of the degree of food processing and the formulation of a processed food. Although correlational studies linking processed food and obesity abound, there is a need for more investigative studies.

PRO: Mark Lawrence.  Ultra-processed foods: a fit-for-purpose concept for nutrition policy activities to tackle unhealthy and unsustainable diets.  Also an addendum: Ultra-processed foods: a fit-for-purpose concept for nutrition policy activities to tackle unhealthy and unsustainable diets.

This commentary describes the UPF concept as being fit-for-purpose in providing guidance to inform policy activities to tackle unhealthy and unsustainable diets. There is now a substantial body of evidence linking UPF exposure with adverse population and planetary health outcomes. The UPF concept is increasingly being used in the development of food-based dietary guidelines and nutrition policy actions. It challenges many conventional nutrition research and policy activities as well as the political economy of the industrial food system. Inevitably, there are politicised debates associated with UPF and it is apparent a disproportionate number of articles claiming the concept is controversial originate from a small number of researchers with declared associations with UPF manufacturers.

Letters to the editor

CON: Mark J Messina, John L Sievenpiper, Patricia Williamson, Jessica Kiel, John W Erdman.  Ultra-processed foods: a concept in need of revision to avoid targeting healthful and sustainable plant-based foods

we take issue with his perspective on our recently published article in which we make two fundamental points. First, the common criticisms of ultra-processed foods (UPF) do not apply to soya-based meat and dairy alternatives more so than they do to their animal-based counterparts, meat and cows’ milk, despite the former being classified as UPF and the latter as unprocessed/minimally processed foods. Second, NOVA is overly simplistic and does not adequately evaluate the nutritional attributes of meat and dairy alternatives based on soya….We therefore stand by our opinion that NOVA does a disservice to the public by suggesting that because soya burgers and soyamilk are NOVA-classified as UPF, they should be avoided. These foods can aid in the transition to and maintenance of plant-based diets.

PRO:  Mark Lawrence. The need for particular scrutiny of claims made by researchers associated with ultra-processed food manufacturers.

In this Commentary, I referred to challenges the UPF concept presents to researchers with declared associations with UPF manufacturers. The interplay between nutrition research and commercial interests is a widely recognised phenomenon in the commercial determinants of health literature…UPF-related research has become highly politicised and the integrity of the claims presented by researchers associated with UPF manufacturers demands close scrutiny.


In his letter, Mark Lawrence noted my having included the paper by Messina et al as one of my “industry-funded studies of the week” on this website.  In it, I reproduced the unusually long conflict of interest declaration of the authors, many of them disclosing ties to companies making ultra-processed foods.  Again, the ultra-processed concept is backed up by an extraordinary amount of research far beyond the point where it can be ignored or dismissed out of hand.

Professor Lawrence explains why there is so much pushback: “It [the UPF concept] challenges many conventional nutrition research and policy activities as well as the political economy of the industrial food system.”

Jul 19 2023

Ultra-processed pushback #3: Nordic Nutrition Researchers reply

Last week, I posted information and links to documents sent to me anonymously suggesting that the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR) had been influenced by the food industry to omit a statement in an earlier draft to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.

I have no first hand personal experience with these recommendations and do not want to get in the middle of a dispute over the development of these guidelines.

I do feel strongly that the concept of ultra-processed is an enormous step forward in understanding how to eat more healthfully, backed up as it is by hundreds of observational studies and one extraordinarily well controlled clinical trial (Kevin Hall’s at NIH).  I think enough evidence exists, and the concept is well enough defined, to advise the public to eat less of highly processed food products.

Shortly after my post went online, I received the following letter from Norwegian researchers involved in the NNR process asking me to correct and clarify what I had posted.  I reproduce the letter here with their permission, and with thanks for our correspondence over this issue.  Read what they say and last week’s post, and decide for yourself.

July 12th 2023

Dear Marion Nestle,

This email is from the Norwegian researchers involved with the recently published Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR2023), including the head of the working group.

We have read your books, followed your daily blogposts for years, and always appreciated your informative and thoughtful letters. However, your post Monday 10th July on NNR2023 and the chapter on ultra-processed foods (UPF) is misinformed, and we believe that your informant has misled you. We would appreciate the opportunity to answer the claims, one by one.

  • You: “The backstory here is one of effective food industry lobbying”.
    • This is 100 % untrue. The committee has not been subject to any form of lobbying unless one considers responses to the public hearing as lobbying. In the public hearing, which you have a link to, you cite that we received 60 responses (or to be correct: 58 responses when subtracting the heading and an empty entry) to the UPF chapter, but as the same institution could have several entries, there were 39 unique responses. Of these, 27 represented industry or commercial interests in one way or the other, while 12 responses were from academia.
    • If you read the responses carefully, you will see that absolutely ALL the academic institutions argue that it is premature to give public advice on UPFs. The academic responses came from the following institutions: Lund University, Nofima (a food research institute), Natural Resources Institute of Finland, Norwegian University of Technology and Science (NTNU), Technical Research Centre of Finland, SINTEF Ocean (Norway), RISE Research Institute of Sweden, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Chalmers Technical College, Sweden’s Agricultural University (SLU), Karolinska, University of Helsinki, University of Lund, Swedish Food Agency, University of Gothenburg, and University of Umeå. (There are more than 12 institutions because several of them merged their responses into one entry).
    • You do not mention that there were three independent peer-reviewers of the UPF review paper, none of which has ties to the food industry
    • It is first and foremost careful listening to the input from the peer-reviewers and the scientific inputs from the public consultation, combined with our own evaluation of the totality of the evidence, that made us land on not having a specific recommendation on UPFs.
      • The arguments against having a recommendation on UPF are nicely summed up in this input to the public hearing (jointly signed by a number of scientists from Sweden): “In summary, the chapter introduces an unspecific concept that is controversial without a detailed discussion about its benefits and limitations. It is questionable whether the concept UPF adds anything beyond existing measures of diet quality since it is merely a proxy that includes both diet (nutrient) quality aspects, additives and processes. It is of outermost importance that NNR is based on solid scientific data and avoids speculations based on model studies and poorly defined exposures to maintain trust and credibility among the public and the research community. As researchers, we consider UPFs as an unspecific and non-scientifically defined concept that will make it difficult to study mechanisms and unravel causality. Instead, we suggest using existing and more well-defined and studied measures of diet quality and make efforts to come up with better ways of measuring food processing per see to allow a scientific evaluation of its potential implications for human health. This could be reflected in a narrative chapter that introduces and discuss the concept of UPF and food processing and their benefits and limitations in a balanced way as well as identifies scientific gaps in our understanding of the role of different processing and additives for health”.
      • As an example, whole-grain bread does not become unhealthy just because it is placed in the UPF group.
  • You: “These negative views of the UPF concept differ from the views of the background document (however politely stated) and clearly were influenced by the overwhelmingly negative views of food industry representatives”.
    • Yes, the food industry representatives were negative, but as explained in the previous comment, so were absolutely ALL the Nordic scientists who responded in the public hearing. The result would have been the same regardless of the comments from industry.
  • You refer to a summary in English available on online: This is an anonymous summary, but likely written by the same person who is your informant
  • You cite your informant who states the following: “I have come to realize that this is not at all about evidence. It’s about power, and who gets to define what’s important in nutrition science. “The establishment” refuses to accept that someone from Brazil, a country they regard as inferior, should be allowed to tell them they have been wrong in their nutritionism-approach. They claim NOVA is based on ideology, not science….And now this is getting in the way of public health”.

This is an outrageous claim and we wonder how anyone can accuse us of something like this. We have the deepest respect for Carlos Monteiro and have followed his research on UPF since he first published his hypothesis in 2009. Like him, we are deeply concerned about the rise of overweight and obesity worldwide and like him, we work on disentangling the causes. We find the UPF concept intriguing scientifically, but it’s premature to use the concept in public advice until it has been refined and better defined.

We are also surprised that you do not mention the large proportion of comments coming from the meat industry and farmer’s organizations regarding both health and sustainability aspects of meat consumption. They have of course been fervently opposed the science advice to reduce meat consumption to maximum 350 grams red meat/week, generating significant media attention and engaging with politicians to dismiss the report. This would itself certainly be an interesting case study. However, the committee again adhered to the science and did not succumb to lobbyism. The same goes for sugars, alcohol and other hot topics. This is contrary to the accusations that the recommendations were influenced by the food industry.

We regret to note that you have shared a letter containing misleading allegations regarding the NNR2023 results on UPFs. The unfounded accusations of NNR2023 seem to come mainly from persons who are also in opposition to the NNR2023 advice on reducing red meat intake, thus being in opposition to a more environmentally sustainable diet. Nonetheless, we do hope that you will look more closely into the final NNR2023 report (not the draft) and modify the damaging and untruthful assertions about the process.

Yours sincerely

Helle Margrete Meltzer, member of the NNR2023 committee, former research director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health

Rune Blomhoff, head of the NNR2023 committee, professor at the University of Oslo

Jacob Juel Christensen, member of the NNR2023 committee, postdoc at the University of Oslo

Erik Kristoffer Arnesen, advisor to the NNR2023 committee, PhD student at the University of Oslo

Jul 18 2023

Ultra-processed pushback #2: The UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee

The U.K.’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has released its statement on ultra-processed foods.

It dealt with the NOVA classification system (the one I used in yesterday’s post to define ultra-processed foods).  The committee does not like it much.

Assessment beyond the initial screen identified that the literature is currently dominated by NOVA, raising the risk that any limitations or biases present within the NOVA classification system may be replicated throughout the research literature.
While NOVA also met criterion 2 on a clear, usable definition and criterion 4 on the availability of data on inter-assessor agreement, assessment beyond the initial screen dentified less certainty on the clarity, reliability and feasibility of the system.

The SACN’s conclusions:

The SRs identified have consistently reported that increased consumption of (ultra-) processed foods was associated with increased risks of adverse health outcomes. However, there are uncertainties around the quality of evidence available. Studies are almost exclusively observational and confounding factors or key variables such as energy intake, body mass index, smoking and socioeconomic status may not be adequately accounted for.

…In particular, the classification of some foods is discordant with nutritional and other food-based classifications. Consumption of (ultra-) processed foods may be an indicator of other unhealthy dietary patterns and lifestyle behaviours. Diets high in (ultra-) processed foods are often energy dense, high in saturated fat, salt or free sugars, high in processed meat, and/or low in fruit and vegetables and fibre.

…The observed associations between higher consumption of (ultra-) processed foods and adverse health outcomes are concerning – however, the limitations in the NOVA classification system, the potential for confounding, and the possibility that the observed adverse associations with (ultra-) processed foods are covered by existing UK dietary recommendations mean that the evidence to date needs to be treated with caution.

Comment: Kevin Hall  et al’s well controlled clinical trial of ultra-processed versus merely processed diets is neither discussed nor cited in this statement.  Once again, I have no personal knowledge of how this statement was developed, but the U.K.s Soil Association has published a statement with the provocative title, Sticky fingers of food industry on government ultra-processed food review.

While we’re pleased that SACN has prioritised this review, and has acknowledged that ultra-processed foods are of “concern”, we’re disturbed that the committee’s conclusions may have been skewed by industry ties, conflicted financial interests, and a narrow framing of the science.

…But the committee is also guilty of losing the wood for the trees, failing even to raise concern about how ultra-processed foods have overtaken their own nutritional advice….Most people in the UK are failing to eat such a [healthy] diet, precisely because these foods have been displaced by ultra-processed products. The average child’s diet is more than 60% ultra-processed, and rates of obesity and ill health are rising sharply in turn. …SACN is oddly silent on case for re-balancing the diet and addressing the corporate capture of children’s food.

These omissions should prompt us to look more closely at the composition of the committee. SACN has sixteen members. One is a paid consultant working for Cargill, Tate & Lyle, and CBC Israel (a manufacturer and marketer of fizzy drinks such as Coca-Cola and Sprite); two are in receipt of funding from the meat and dairy industry; one is a shareholder in Sainsbury’s; and five are members of the American Society of Nutrition, which is funded by Mars, Nestlé, and Mondelez. Among SACN’s members is the Chair of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe, a body that receives funding from some of the world’s largest food companies, such as Barilla, Cargill, Danone, General Mills, Mondelez, and PepsiCo; and two individuals with financial relationships with the British Nutrition Foundation, an organisation funded by British Sugar, Cargill, Coca Cola, Danone, Greggs, Kellogg, KP Snacks, Mars, McDonald’s, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Tate & Lyle, and Tesco. Two SACN members have been funded by Danone, one of the largest ultra-processed food companies in the world; one sits on the council of the Nestlé Foundation; and another is a former employee of Unilever, with current shares in the company worth “more than £5000”.

These declared interests do not imply corruption or bias on the part of SACN members, but they illustrate how pervasive are industry ties at the interface of science and policy.

Jul 17 2023

Industry-influenced study of the week: Ultra-processed foods are good for you!

I am devoting this week to the pushback against advice to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.  It is coming from the food industry, of course, government agencies with ties to the food industry, and nutritionists who focus on  the benefits of nutrients, without contextualizing the foods and diets they come from (“nutritionism”).

For the record, ultra-processed foods are :

  • Industrially produced
  • Bear little resemblance to the foods they were derived from
  • Typically contain additives for color, flavor, and texture
  • Cannot be made in home kitchens,
  • Are formulated to be irresistable,
  • Are associated with excessive calorie intake and poor health
  • Are extremely profitable to their makers
  • Cannot be made in home kitchens (a brief operating definition)

Ultra-processed food pushback #1: A study from the USDA and authors with conflicted interests

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is so proud of this study that it sent out a press release.

Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center led a study that demonstrates it is possible to build a healthy diet with 91 percent of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods (as classified using the NOVA scale) while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The study highlights the versatility of using DGA recommendations in constructing healthy menus.

The Study: Dietary Guidelines Meet NOVA: Developing a Menu for A Healthy Dietary Pattern Using Ultra-Processed Foods.  Julie M. Hess, Madeline E. Comeau, Shanon Casperson, Joanne L. Slavin, Guy H. Johnson, Mark Messina, Susan Raatz, Angela J. Scheett, Anne Bodensteiner, Daniel G. Palmer.  The Journal of Nutrition, 2023.

Purpose: “The purpose of this proof-of-concept study was to determine the feasibility of building a menu that aligns with recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern from the 2020 DGA and includes ≥80% kcal from UPF as defined by NOVA.”

Method: “we first developed a list of foods that fit NOVA criteria for UPF, fit within dietary patterns in the 2020 DGA, and are commonly consumed by Americans. We then used these foods to develop a 7-d, 2000 kcal menu modeled on MyPyramid sample menus and assessed this menu for nutrient content as well as for diet quality using the Healthy Eating Index-2015 (HEI-2015).”

Results: “In the ultra-processed DGA menu that was created, 91% of kcal were from UPF, or NOVA category 4. The HEI-2015 score was 86 out of a possible 100 points.”

Conclusions: “Healthy dietary patterns can include most of their energy from UPF, still receive a high diet quality score, and contain adequate amounts of most macro- and micronutrients.”

 Conflicts of Interest: “MM serves as the Director of Nutrition Science and Research for the Soy Nutrition Institute (SNI) Global. The SNI Global receives funding from soybean farmers via the soybean national checkoff program and via membership dues from companies involved in manufacturing and/or selling soy ingredients and/or soyfoods. GHJ serves as Senior Advisor to the McCormick Science Institute. JLS serves on advisory/consultant boards for Simply Good Foods, Quality Carbohydrates Coalition, and the Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board and has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, Taiyo, Barilla Foods, and the USDA in the past 12 mo. The other authors report no conflicts of interest.”

Funding: This work was supported by USDA Agricultural Research Service project grant #3062-51000-057-00D.

Comment:  I can think of only one reason for doing a study like this: to cast doubt on the concept of ultra-processed foods (UPF) and all the research showing that UPF diets induce people to eat more calories (see the study by Kevin Hall et al) and are strongly associated in hundreds of studies with poor health, evidence that by this time is overwhelming and incontrovertible.  Why now?  Because the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has been charged with examining the relationship of UPF to heart disease risk.

The first rule of the ‘Playbook” is to cast doubt on the research, which is what we are seeing here.  The message to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods makes good sense for health reasons.  But such advice is very bad for the profits of food companies making junk foods.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is a marketing arm of the food industry,.  It is heavily conflicted.

For one thing, the Healthy Eating Index is not useful for this purpose; it is strictly nutrient-based, which is not the issue here.  And the Dietary Guidelines are careful to leave plenty of room for eating junk foods and to say not one word about UPF.

I think the UPF concept is so solidly backed up by evidence that it is here to stay.  But it is so threatening to food companies making UPF products, and the USDA is so captured by the food industry (checkoff programs, anyone?) that it is understandable why they are so eager to cast doubt.

Thanks to the half dozen or so readers who sent this one to me, to Ted Kyle for calling it “oxymoronic healthy eating,” and  Kevin Hall for pointing out that the healthfulness of this diet is assumed, not tested:

Jul 10 2023

Nordic Nutrition Recommendations: influenced by industry?

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me an account of the development of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, pointing out what they do not contain: a recommendation to reduce ultra-processed foods [Note: this is an updated and slightly corrected version of what was first posted on July 9].

Indeed, on pages 253-255 (this is a long report), you will find this statement:

The backstory here is one of effective food industry lobbying.

The Nordic Nutrition Recommendations do not say:  reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.

The story begins with two authors who were asked to sum up the health effects of ultra-processed foods, and to advise the committee writing the recommendations.  They did so.  Their initial background paper concluded with these recommendations:

(1) Limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

(2) Choose less processed form of foods within each food group when possible.

(3) Cook at home and choose freshly prepared foods when eating out.

The committee revised the background paper.  It omitted the three recommendations but concluded:

Recommendations to limit ultra-processed foods, and choose foods of lower processing level, when possible, may enhance and support several of the existing FBDGs [food-based dietary guidelines] and help individuals select more healthful foods that align with the overall NNR2022 [last years Nordic Nutrition Recommendations] guidelines within each food category. For example, such advice would support choosing plain, unsweetened yoghurt instead of flavored, sweet yoghurt; choosing oatmeal or muesli based on grains, nuts, and dried fruits over sweetened, refined breakfast cereals; and choosing chicken breast/thighs over chicken nuggets.

The revised document was opened for public comment and a hearing.  A great many representatives of food companies objected to saying anything negative about ultra-processed foods.  This Excel spreadsheet lists the 60 people who commented and their main objections.

After the hearing, the committee preparing the recommendations wrote a draft report based on the comments.  The section on ultra-processed foods is on pages 152-153.  It begins:

There is currently no consensus on classification of processing of foods, including UPFs. The dominating UPF classification (NOVA classification group 4) contains a variety of unhealthy foods, but also a number of foods with beneficial health effects.

It also says:

Health effects. Regular intake of UPF encourages over-eating and intake of foods in the UPF category of the NOVA classification has been suggested associated with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression, and premature mortality …However, no qSRs [qualified systematic reviews] support these suggestions.

These negative views of the UPF concept differ from the views of the background document (however politely stated) and clearly were influenced by the overwhelmingly negative views of food industry representatives.

The draft report also was opened for public comment.  These comments also are listed in an Excel document. Some favor the changes benefiting the food industry; others—but many fewer—object to them (these last are summarized in yet another document).

The final Nordic Nutrition Recommendations are somewhat of a compromise between public health and food industry views, but generally favor the food industry position.  The new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations are less critical of the UPF concept, but do not say “reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.”

The NOVA food classification system, which first defined ultra-processed foods, was published by Carlos Monteiro, a professor of public health at the University of São Paulo, and his colleagues in 2009.*  About the Nordic recommendations, my informant writes:

I have come to realize that this is not at all about evidence. It’s about power, and who gets to define what’s important in nutrition science. “The establishment” refuses to accept that someone from Brazil, a country they regard as inferior, should be allowed to tell them they have been wrong in their nutritionism-approach. They claim NOVA is based on ideology, not science….And now this is getting in the way of public health.

My take-home lesson:  The food industry came out in force on this issue and greatly overwhelmed the few comments of public health advocates.  The message here seems clear: public support for reduction of ultra-processed food needs to be widespread, clear, and forceful.

*Definition of ultra-processed foods

  • Industrially produced
  • Bearing no evident relationship to the foods from which they were derived
  • Formulated to be irresistably delicious (if not addictive)
  • Usually containing color, flavor, and texture additives
  • Often high in salt, sugar, and fat (but these are culinary ingredients that do not in themselves make foods ultra-processed)
  • Cannot be made in home kitchens (because they are industrially produced and contain ingredients unavailable to home cooks)


An additional document was sent to me after this post and the response from nutritionists involved in the NNR, which I posted the following week.  It is from the authors of the background document expressing their concerns about the changes made.