The Scientific Advisory Committee has published their position statement on processed foods including consideration of ultra-processed foods (UPF).
The key outcomes of the statement are:
- NOVA was the only processed food classification that met SACN’s initial screening criteria as being potentially suitable for use in the UK, although it was not always possible to correctly classify foods to the NOVA categories based on current data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS).
- SACN identified some concerns around practical application of the NOVA classification in the UK. In particular, the classification of some foods not being consistent with existing UK dietary advice.
- Consumption of UPF may be an indicator of other unhealthy dietary patterns and lifestyle behaviours and diets high in UPF are often energy dense, high in saturated fat, salt or free sugars, high in processed meat, and/or low in fruit and vegetables and fibre.
- It is unclear to what extent observed associations between UPF and adverse health outcomes are explained by established relationships between nutrition and health outcomes on which SACN has undertaken robust risk assessments (e.g. recent report on saturated fats and health).
- The observed associations between higher consumption of UPF and adverse health outcomes are concerning. But, the limitations in the NOVA classification system, the potential for confounding, and the possibility that the observed adverse associations with UPF are covered by existing UK dietary recommendations mean that the evidence to date needs to be treated with caution.
SACN acknowledged that the observed associations between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) and adverse health outcomes are concerning. However, they highlighted some limitations of the research using the NOVA classification system, including the potential for confounding and the difficulty in accurately identifying UPF based on UK dietary survey data.
The UPF category includes many foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar that we are already advised to limit in the diet. For this reason, much of their association with ill health may already be dealt within our current dietary recommendations. But the UPF classification is broad and also includes foods such as sliced wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, low fat fruit yogurts and baked beans, all of which could be included in a healthy diet according to current UK healthy eating advice. SACN made a number of recommendations for future research on UPF and we need better evidence on exactly why high consumption of UPF would lead to ill health to give clearer advice to consumers.
For more information about the science behind ultra-processed foods and health, see our position statement on the concept of UPF.
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