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Food processing, diet quality and human health

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TAG Foundation Family Grandstand, University of Sydney

Building B23

Regimental Drive

Camperdown, NSW 2050

Australia

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Most foods purchased and consumed are processed to some extent. The issue is not processing, it is ultra-processed foods.

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Abstract

Most foods purchased and consumed are processed to some extent. For this reason, accounts that are critical of ‘processed food’ are not useful. Diets restricted to unprocessed food would be less diverse and less secure. Foods benefit, and are made more available, when processed by various harmless methods of preservation; and some processes enhance food quality, non-alcoholic fermentation being an example. Traditional and established cuisines all over the world are based on dishes and meals prepared from unprocessed and minimally processed food together with small amounts of processed culinary ingredients and processed foods.

The issue is not processing. It is ultra-processed foods, the fourth group in the NOVA system of food classification. Ultra-processed foods are not ‘real food’. They are formulations of low-cost food substances often modified by chemical processes plus flavours, colours, emulsifiers and a myriad of other cosmetic additives. These ingredients are assembled into ready-to-consume, long-shelf life, branded, aggressively marketed, hyper-palatable food and drink products that are liable to replace all other NOVA groups and freshly prepared dishes and meals.

Taken together, results from nationally-representative studies undertaken in 10 countries (including Australia) show significant and graded associations between the dietary share of ultra-processed foods and dietary nutrient profiles prone to non-communicable diseases, including high or excessive content of free or added sugar, saturated and trans fats, and sodium, and also high dietary energy density; and low or insufficient content of protein, fibre and potassium.

Evidence from eighteen large, population-based cohort studies show plausible, significant and graded associations between the dietary share of ultra-processed foods and the incidence of several non-communicable diseases, including obesity and obesity-related outcomes, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, breast and all cancers, depression, frailty in the elderly, and also premature mortality. In the case of short-term increases in body weight and fat, this is solidly supported by one randomised controlled trial.

Because ultra-processed foods already make up near or more than 50% of total energy intake in many high-income countries (including Australia) and are increasing very fast in middle- and low-income countries, effective public policies should urgently disincentive the consumption of these products and promote dietary patterns based on minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals.

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This presentation is part of the Sydney Food and Nutrition Network's MDI Symposium. Prof Carlos Monteiro will close the day with his talk. Please consider attending the symposium if you are currently undertaking food and nutrition research at the University of Sydney. This particular session is open to all.

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Biography

Carlos Monteiro is a Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil where he chairs the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition. His main academic achievements include extensively quoted studies on the nutrition transition and the development of the most used food classification based on food-processing (NOVA) which is the basis for the internationally acclaimed Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population. He has served on numerous national and international nutrition expert panels and committees and, since 2010, he is one of the members of the WHO Nutrition Expert Advisory Group on Diet and Health. In 2010, he received the PAHO Abraham Horwitz Award for Excellence in Leadership in Inter-American Health, and, in 2018 and 2019, he was listed by Clarivate’s Analytics/Web of Science among the top 1% of scientists in Social Sciences whose publications reached higher impact (2018 and 2019 Highly Cited Researchers).

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TAG Foundation Family Grandstand, University of Sydney

Building B23

Regimental Drive

Camperdown, NSW 2050

Australia

View Map

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