"Beyond Ultra-processed"; Considering the Future Role of Food Processing in Human Health

Ciarán G. Forde*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Food based dietary guidelines have been the basis of public health recommendations for over half a century, but more recently there has been a trend to classify the health properties of food not by its nutrient composition, but by the degree to which it has been processed. This concept has been supported by many association studies, narrative reviews, and the findings from one randomised controlled feeding trial (RCT), which demonstrated the sustained effect of ultra-processed diets on increasing both energy intake and body weight. This has led to widespread speculation as to specific features of ultra-processed foods that promote increased energy intakes. Rising interest in the ultra-processed topic has led to proposals to include guidance and restrictions on the consumption of processed foods in national dietary guidelines, with some countries encouraging consumers to avoid highly processed foods completely, and only choose minimally processed foods. However, there remains a lack of consensus on the role of processed foods in human health when faced with the challenges of securing the food supply for a growing global population, that is healthy, affordable, and sustainable. There has also been criticism of the subjective nature of definitions used to differentiate foods by their degree of processing, and there is currently a lack of empirical data to support a clear mechanism by which highly processed foods promote greater energy intakes. Recommendations to avoid all highly processed foods are potentially harmful if they remove affordable sources of nutrients and will be impractical for most when an estimated two thirds of current energy purchased are from processed or ultra-processed foods. The current review highlights some considerations when interpreting the dietary association studies that link processed food intake to health and offers a critique on some of the mechanisms proposed to explain the link between ultra-processed food and poor health. Recent research suggests a combination of higher energy density and faster meal eating rates are likely to influence meal size and energy intakes from processed foods and offers new perspectives on how to manage this in the future. In going beyond the ultra-processed debate, the aim is to summarize some important considerations when interpreting existing data and identify the important gaps for future research on the role of processed food in health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)406-418
JournalProceedings of the Nutrition Society
Issue number3
Early online date1 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


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