Diet, health, and ultraprocessed foods. The FAO report


The recent FAO report on ‘Ultraprocessed Foods, Diet Quality and Human Health‘ offers new insights into effective nutrition policies. (1) Since almost no one usually consults the nutrition claims on the label-except in cases where there are summary schemes, such as the
– it seems useful to classify foods according to their level of industrial processing. The more ‘sophisticated’ the product is, compared to the natural raw materials used as ingredients, the less you have to consume it.

Bad foods and health at risk

A number of processed foods are cited-in reports by WHO and other international agencies (WHO 2003, WCRF 2007)-as the determining cause of overweight, obesity, Non-Communicable Diseases, NCDs. Namely, chronic noncommunicable diseases. These stem primarily from unbalanced diets and are the leading cause of premature mortality worldwide, accounting for 86 percent of deaths. (3) These include cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, cancers, diabetes, hepatic steatosis, and immune system alterations.

Foods to avoid-or at most, consume sporadically in homeopathic doses-are those with high energy density, sugary drinks, some starchy products (e.g., potato chips), palm oil, sugar or salt. In a word, junk food.

Food classification, the NOVA study

Researchers at the University of São Paulo (Brazil), with the scientific study NOVA, have developed an innovative food classification system. (2) Which transcends traditional distinctions based on matrices (e.g., grains, legumes, milk and dairy products, etc.) or macro-nutrients (e.g., sources of carbohydrates, simple sugars, saturated and unsaturated fats, proteins). Instead, to consider the level of processing of the raw materials used. The NOVA scheme thus distinguishes four categories of foods:

1) Unprocessed or minimally processed foods . From water to ‘edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots),’ mushrooms and algae. As well as simple foods of animal origin, such as eggs and milk, unprocessed meats,

2) Classic ingredients from home cooking. Oil and butter, salt and vinegar, sugar, herbs and spices,

3)Processed foods (processed food). Bread and pasta, cheese, simply processed meat and fish (e.g., roasts, canned fish), vegetable preserves,

4 )ultra-processed food (ultra-processed food). Snacks and cookies, confectionery, breakfast cereals and energy bars, spreads and margarines. As well as salty snacks (e.g., chips), frankfurters and products with mechanically separated meats and preservatives other than salt, poultry and fish nuggets, industrial pizzas, and ready-made meals including vegan ones.

Ultra-processed foods, the FAO report

The FAO reportUltra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system‘ offers a review of scientific literature on the relationships between diet and health. Highlighting a direct link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods, with often unbalanced nutritional profiles (HFSS, High in Fats, Sugar and Sodium), the occurrence of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and premature mortality. As also ascertained in recent studies from the Universities of Paris and Navarre.

It is emphasized, among other things, how the intake of ultra-processed foods negatively affects the overall diet. Because of the food addiction that is induced by this type of product, which has also already been established in a previous study conducted on children by the University of São Paulo (Brazil). (4)

The manufacturing processes and ingredients used, with extensive use of food additives, moreover, make the foods ultra-processed:

extremely convenient for consumers. Because of the ready availability(Ready-To-Eat), easy storage, hyper-appetizability. almost imperishable) and very attractive (hyperpetible) to consumers,

highly profitable for producers, who in fact promote them with irresponsible and aggressive marketing policies. Due to the high margins that low-value ingredients allow, and the long shelflife of products(shelf-life).

In its extensive conclusions, the FAO report recommends consideration of the seriously negative impact of ultra-processed foods on public health. Recommending public policies and synergies with the private sector. With the goal of promoting the consumption of fresh and minimally processed foods, along with minimizing that of ultra-processed foods. In line with, among others, the recommendations offered by the UN in ‘United Nations Framework for Action, Decade of Action on Nutrition‘ (FAO & WHO, 2014) and ‘UN Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases 2013-2020′ (WHO, 2013).

Dario Dongo


(1) Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M.L. and Pereira Machado, P.(2019). Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, Rome. ISBN 978-92-5-131701-3. V.

(2) Cf. Food classification, public health. NOVA, the star shines bright, in World Nutrition, Volume 7, Number 1-3, January-March 2016

(3) NCD Risk Factor Collaboration. (2017). Worldwide trends in body-mass index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128.9 million children, adolescents, and adults. The Lancet, 10.10.17.

GBD (Global Burden of Disease) Diet Collaborators. (2019). Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet, 3.4.19.

(4) Food addiction, i.e., addiction to food and obesity-with special regard to ultra-processed foods, characterized by the co-presence of significant (and dangerous) portions of often saturated fatty acids and salt/sodium and/or sugar-was explored by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, investigative journalist for the New York Times. In the book ‘Fats, Sweet and Savory‘ (Mondadori, Milan, 2014. ISBN 8804636548). A valuable text, at the time reviewed by the writer in the original edition(Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Random House, USA) in The Food Fact. V.