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Ultra Processed Foods and Consumer Perceptions

Ultra Processed Foods and Consumer Perceptions

Food processing refers to everything that transforms raw materials into more palatable, digestible and/or nutritious food products.

The main objective of food processing is to provide safe, palatable, digestible products and to extend their shelf life. Many industrial processes are inspired by food preparation and preservation methods known from home, such as cooking, baking, canning or drying.

In the middle of the century, we started appreciating the value of food. The focus of food product developers was to prepare safe food, and the race started to produce more affordable food so that everyone could enjoy it . As the demand of consumers grew bigger, the size of the production lines grew also, and it became extremely important to refine the processes and the formulations, to ensure that the customer experience would be always the same.

Convenience, standardization and price have then driven the development of new food products for the rest of the Century, and additional processing unit operations have been added to food processing plants to be able to fine tune product offerings.

But what now? We all are becoming aware that “we are what we eat”. The obesity epidemic, the raising rate of diet related conditions such as obesity or cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, have made us increasingly concerned about “processed food”.

What is a Processed Food?

Very recently, a new classification has been proposed for foods. The so-called “NOVA” classification was first proposed by the Brazilian Ministry of Health in 2014 and later adopted for a communication paper of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2019. It categorizes foods:

according to the nature, extent and purpose of the industrial processes they undergo

So-called “ultra-processed foods” constitute the fourth and last of these categories. They are described as products that result from the breakdown of the original food matrices into ingredients and the recreation of a new matrix from these ingredients in a sequence of different processing techniques.

Additional components are often added to fulfil specific functions such as preservation, stabilization or flavoring. Although added has highly purified and perhaps synthetic ingredients, many of these substances have analogues in nature, for example lecithin (E322). Egg yolk, which naturally contains this phospholipid, has been used for decades to stabilize mayonnaise. Nowadays, phospholipids such as lecithin are used industrially as emulsifiers due to their stabilizing effect on mixtures of incompatible compounds such as oil and water.

The ultra-processed food group also contains all kinds of industrially produced dried, chilled and frozen ready-to-eat dishes, so-called “convenience foods”. These products are often not only formulated from different ingredients, but also composed of different processed and ultra-processed foods.

The NOVA classification attempts to relate the various levels of processing to the health effects linked to their consumption, and infers that ultra-processed foods are typically unhealthy due to high contents of fat, sugar and salt, and low contents of fiber, protein and micronutrients, and that their consumption can be related to obesity and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Consequently, this classification is now often referred to in the development of public policies and dietary recommendations.

The NOVA classification is used to raise the consumers’ awareness concerning healthy eating habits. But are we perhaps confusing ultra-processed food with food that has been formulated with unhealthy ingredients? Should we perhaps look at this problem with a different perspective?

The generalization carried out by the NOVA classification has been highly criticized by food scientists, who argue that unhealthy food products are not the result of processing, as is implied by the term, but rather a consequence of the formulation. In fact, a food product can be ultra-processed and healthy, and many plant-based foods such as almond milk, humus or tofu are ultra-processed by definition, as their production requires a number of processing steps. Moreover, the term “ultra-processed food” is applied only for industrial products, whereas the same food made at home would not be classified at all.

Consumers generally seem to accept a certain extent of food processing, especially when they are familiar with the technology due to similarities with traditional methods applied at home or in artisanal food processing, and when they can understand the necessity of it. Ultra-processed foods, however, often result from several processing steps and may contain a large number of ingredients. This might make consumers question which advantages arise for them and suspect that only food producers benefit from it.

However, modern food processing plays a key role in the development and production of food products for specific target groups, such as infants, elderly, vegans, athletes and people with allergies. Gluten-free bread, meat-free burgers, protein bars – all are ultra-processed and contain a number of ingredients that ensure safety, stability and palatability. Food processing, including the use of novel non-thermal treatments such as high pressure will also be important to reach a more sustainable food production in the future. Food industry side-streams such as pomace from fruit juice production and press cakes from plant oil extraction are as such unpalatable, but still contain many constituents that are valuable for human nutrition, for example polyphenols, proteins, dietary fiber and vitamins. Making these available for human consumption requires processing of the side-stream materials and incorporation of the obtained ingredients into already established or novel products.

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Introduction to Food Science

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