Ultra-processed foods in search of a reliable classification

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    Ultra-processed foods (UTCs) get a bad rap. And for good reason: they would be involved in the occurrence of certain chronic diseases. Problem, the definition of these TUEs is debated.

    Over the past ten years, ultra-processed foods (UTS), which have found their way into our supermarkets and our kitchens thanks to changes in our way of life, have regularly been the subject of studies which tend to show that these products are potentially harmful to our health.

    Based on this rather concordant work, the nutritional recommendations of public authorities invite us to reduce their consumption. In summary, our food must privilege the “homemade” at the expense of these industrial dishes, which today represent more than 30% of our daily caloric intake, and up to 60% in certain other countries, such as the United Kingdom. .

    A food characterization problem

    But do we know exactly what an ultra-processed food is? This is precisely what the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae) sought to find out, by looking more closely at the classification methods used to conduct studies in connection with with the health impact of these products, by questioning their robustness.

    His response, which can be read in a collective article published in the June issue of Nutrition and Dietetics Notebooksis categorical: the current systems for classifying foods according to their degree of processing are insufficient, starting with the NOVA classification, used in more than 95% of cases, and on which France bases itself to consider that a food is ultra -transformed.

    Today, there is no scientifically sound definition to reliably and robustly determine what an ultra-processed food is.confirms Véronique Braesco, honorary research director at Inrae, head of VAB-Nutrition, a nutrition consulting firm, and co-author of the study. There is above all a problem of characterization of these foods, with quite variable assessments, according to experts.

    Ambiguities that raise questions

    The ambiguity revolves around a number of key notions of food, starting with everything related to processing. “If we except the fruit in which we will bite, the foods we consume always undergo a minimal transformation (peeling, cooking, extrusion, etc.): this is what allows us to consume them and assimilate them, notes Véronique Braesco. Then, we often confuse processing and formulation, that is, the assembly of foods in the same recipe, which ranges from ratatouille to a dish full of additives.“You still have to sort out the additives.

    In fact, the study reveals a certain number of aberrations. An example, coffee roasting. “Some traditional methods can be very aggressive, and transform the raw materials enormously, while also generating compounds that are not necessarily good, explains Véronique Braesco. This is precisely the case of roasting, which directly exposes the coffee to fire”. In short, be careful not to project too many preconceived ideas, “a reproach that can be made to the NOVA system which generalizes too much”, says the expert.

    So much so that behind this acronym of AUT, we find a bit of everything, from purified ingredients to packaging, cooking methods to marketing, etc. in short, a kind of catch-all.

    NO to diets, YES to WW!

    Refocusing the debate around nutrition

    This finding raises questions about the reliability of the studies conducted using this classification, which is understood differently, depending on the country. It is not a question of making a clean sweep of the existing one, assures Véronique Braesco: “It is always better to cook yourself, for nutritional and behavioral reasons. On the other hand, it is perhaps necessary to be less rigorous vis-à-vis industrial products. Surely it would be ideal if we could all have a garden and chickens, but that’s utopian. What is worrying is to highlight the fact that a product is processed to disqualify it, and not its nutritional quality.”.

    Finally, we don’t all have the means, and/or the time necessary, to do without some of these industrial products. This is also something to take into account. Concretely, advises Véronique Braesco, “trust the Nutri-Score, the result of nutritional profiling work based on scientific data, follow the recommendations of the National Health Nutrition Program (PNNS) and do not buy a product that has a list of ingredients as long as the arm”.


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