A couple of weeks ago, the word ultra-processed made national headlines when a well done study concluded that ultra-processed food promotes weight gain while unprocessed food does not. This one I said to myself needs further investigation.
After reading the complete study, I linked to another site for clarification on what foods are ultra-processed and ended up at NOVA. There I learned about a Brazilian academic Carlos Monteiro and his novel food classification system NOVA. Links to both study and NOVA provided at the end of the post.
NOVA divides foods into four groups and characterizes ultra-processed foods as follows:
“The fourth NOVA group is ultra-processed food and drink products. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.”
Then I went to my pantry hoping to find something vaguely resembling that verbose awkward prose. I didn’t find much until I remembered my KIND bars. I always keep at least one in my pocketbook for emergencies. I’m partial to the apricot almond, so I looked in my pocketbook and there was a KIND bar wrapped and ready to go. The ingredient list is printed on the wrapper: almonds, coconut, apricots, glucose syrup, honey, chicory root fiber, rice flour, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt.
With the ingredient list in one hand and that prose description in the other, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. Words in boldface refer back to NOVA. Ingredients are numbered in descending order.
#1 almonds, #2 coconut, #3 apricots are familiar foods. I can see the almond pieces and perhaps the coconut shreds in my KIND bar so we’ll call them intact. I don’t see any apricot pieces however. Maybe apricot purée?
#4 glucose syrup, #5 honey, and #9 sugar are sugar.
#6 chicory root fiber is the name manufacturers give to inulin for labeling purposes. Chicory root is an intact food. It looks like a short fat shaggy cream colored carrot with long brown hairs. Inulin is a white powder which is extracted and refined from the root and is considered an isolated non-digestible carbohydrates by the FDA. Manufacturers can count inulin as a fiber on the nutrition facts label. Inulin is not commonly used in culinary preparations, although you can order inulin as a supplement online or buy it off the supplement shelf in a health food store.
#7 rice flour is a stabilizer
#8 soy lecithin is an emulsifier (not referenced above but found in other descriptions of NOVA)
#10 sea salt is salt
So is my KIND bar ultra-processed? It certainly looks that way to my analytic eye. Of the 10 ingredients counted, 7 tract back to NOVA.
Does it matter? Now that’s the tricky question. And over the next couple of years, many smart, knowledgeable researchers are going to be working hard trying to figure out the answer to that question.
Pictured next to the KIND bar is an equivalent weight of dry unsulfured apricots and almonds which I also keep in my pantry. Just two ingredients. Clearly not ultra-processed. Taste is 100% subjective and my preference is the simpler version of fruit and nuts. But when I’m hungry enough to just need calories, the KIND bar is what I reach for.