At the end In the 2000s, Carlos Monteiro noticed something strange about the food Brazilians ate. The nutritionist carefully studied three decades of survey data, in which grocery store shoppers were asked to write down every product they bought. In recent surveys, Monteiro noticed that Brazilians are buying far less butter, sugar and salt than in the past. Despite this, people gained kilograms. Between 1975 and 2009, the proportion of Brazilian adults who were overweight or obese more than doubled.
This contradiction worried Monteiro. If people buy less fat and sugar, why are they getting bigger? The answer was right there in the data. Brazilians didn’t actually cut back on fat, salt, and sugar — they just consumed these nutrients in a whole new form. People were swapping traditional foods—rice, beans, and vegetables—for packaged ones. bread, sweets, sausages and other snacks. The share of biscuits and soft drinks in Brazilian shopping carts has tripled and increased five times, respectively, since household survey in 1974. Changes were visible everywhere. When Monteiro first qualified as a doctor in 1972, he worried that Brazilians were not get enough food. By the late 2000s, his country faced the exact opposite problem.
At first glance, Monteiro’s conclusions seem obvious. If people eat too much unhealthy food, they gain more weight. But the nutritionist was not satisfied with this explanation. He believed that some fundamental change had taken place in our food system, and scientists needed a new way to tell about it. For more than a century, nutritional science has focused on nutrients: eat less saturated fat, avoid excess sugar, get enough vitamin C, and so on. But Monteiro wanted a new way of categorizing food that emphasized how foods were made, not just what was in them. It’s not just the ingredients that make junk food, Monteiro thought. It was a whole system: how the food was processed, how quickly we ate it, and how it was sold and sold. “We propose a new theory for understanding the relationship between nutrition and health,” says Monteiro.
Monteiro created a new food classification system called NOVA, which breaks down foods into four categories. Foods with minimal processing, such as fruits, vegetables, and raw meats, are of the least concern. Then come processed cooking ingredients (butter, butter, and sugar) and then processed foods (canned vegetables, smoked meats, freshly baked bread, and plain cheeses)—substances that should be used with care as part of a healthy diet. And then there are ultra-processed foods.
There are many reasons why a product may end up in ultra-processed category. This can be done using “industrial processes” such as extrusion, transesterification, carbonization, hydrogenation, molding, or pre-frying. It may contain additives to make it delicious or preservatives to help it stay stable at room temperature. Or it may be high in fat, sugar, and salt in combinations not commonly found in whole foods. What all products have in common, says Monteiro, is that they are designed to replace freshly prepared meals and keep you coming back for more and more and more. “Every day, from breakfast to dinner, you eat something that has been specifically designed to be consumed in excess,” says Monteiro.
The concept of ultra-processed food has been on the rise since it was first introduced in 2009: Brazil, France, Israel, Ecuador, and Peru have made NOVA part of their dietary guidelines. Countless health and diet blogs extol the virtues of avoiding highly processed foods. Avoiding them is something that both carnivore and raw vegan dieters can agree on. The label has been used to criticize plant-based meat companies, which have in turn adopted the label. Impossible calls its plant-based burger “shamelessly processed“. Others point out that we won’t be able to feed billions of people without relying on processed food.