Ultra-processed foods can be part of healthy diets

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A new study led by ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess challenges the prevailing notion that ultra-processed foods are inherently detrimental to health.

According to the research, a diet comprising 91% of calories from ultra-processed foods can still meet the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Let’s delve deeper into the study and its implications.

The NOVA Scale: A Brief Introduction

To classify foods based on their level of processing, the study used the NOVA scale, a tool widely recognized in nutritional science. NOVA categories are as follows:

  1. Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods: Whole foods with little to no alterations.
  2. Processed Culinary Ingredients: Things like oil, sugar, and salt used in cooking.
  3. Processed Foods: Foods altered for preservation or flavor, like canned vegetables or cheese.
  4. Ultra-Processed Foods: Foods made largely from extracts and additives; think soda, instant noodles, and many packaged snacks.

The Experiment: Design and Results

Researchers designed a 2,000-calorie, seven-day menu using the MyPyramid guide to test the feasibility of a DGA-compliant diet rich in ultra-processed foods.

The foods were carefully chosen for their low saturated fats, low added sugars, and high micronutrient and macronutrient content. Examples include canned beans, instant oatmeal, and ultra-filtered milk.

The outcome? An impressive Healthy Eating Index–2015 score of 86 out of 100. However, the diet exceeded sodium recommendations and fell short on whole grains.

Implications and What’s Next

Julie Hess explains that this study offers a “more balanced view of healthy eating patterns,” arguing that food’s nutrient content and its role in a food group are more critical than its level of processing.

Although previous observational research has linked ultra-processed foods with various health issues, this study suggests that these foods can be a part of a healthy diet when chosen wisely.

However, it’s crucial to note that more research is needed, especially intervention studies, to validate these findings further.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in nutrition, consider reading studies on how certain foods might improve survival rates in Parkinson’s disease or how vitamin D supplements can strongly reduce cancer death.

For further information, consult recent studies on plant nutrients that could help manage high blood pressure and antioxidants that could mitigate the risk of dementia.

The study was published in The Journal of Nutrition, suggesting that the conversation around ultra-processed foods may need to evolve to consider a more nuanced approach to diet and nutrition.

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