Wired has a long story about a Brazilian doctor who has done some significant research into how ultra-processed foods affect people's health. Here's how it frames the story:
"In the late 2000s, Carlos Monteiro noticed something strange about the food that Brazilian people were eating. The nutritionist had been poring over three decades’ worth of data from surveys that asked grocery shoppers to note down every item they bought. In more recent surveys, Monteiro noticed, Brazilians were buying way less oil, sugar, and salt than they had in the past. Despite this, people were piling on the pounds. Between 1975 and 2009 the proportion of Brazilian adults who were overweight or obese more than doubled.
"This contradiction troubled Monteiro. If people were buying less fat and sugar, why were they getting bigger? The answer was right there in the data. Brazilians hadn’t really cut down on fat, salt, and sugar - they were just consuming these nutrients in an entirely new form. People were swapping traditional foods - rice, beans, and vegetables - for prepackaged bread, sweets, sausages, and other snacks."
Monteiro believed that what is needed is "a new way of categorizing food that emphasized how products were made, not just what was in them. It wasn’t just ingredients that made a food unhealthy, Monteiro thought. It was the whole system: how the food was processed, how quickly we ate it, and the way it was sold and marketed."
And so, Monteiro created a new food classification system—called NOVA—that breaks things down into four categories. Least worrisome are minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. Then come processed culinary ingredients (oils, butter, and sugar), and after that processed foods (tinned vegetables, smoked meats, freshly baked bread, and simple cheeses)—substances to be used carefully as part of a healthy diet. And then there are ultra-processed foods."
Overconsumption of ultra-processed food, Wired writes, "has been linked to all kinds of health issues: colorectal and breast cancer, obesity, depression, and all-cause mortality. Figuring out how our diets influence our health is extremely difficult, and any armchair statistician will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, but it does seem clear that consuming too much ultra-processed food isn’t good for us."
You can read the entire story here.