Ultra-processed foods can comprise a healthy diet, USDA study shows

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A new study indicates that a healthy diet with 91% of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods, according to the NOVA scale, can still align with the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

The research sheds light on the adaptability of DGA recommendations in creating healthy meal plans.

ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess explains, “The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option.

According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of food and its place in a food group is more important than the extent to which food was processed.”

The Role of the NOVA Scale

The study used the NOVA scale, first appearing in 2009 and widely used in nutritional science, to classify foods based on the degree of processing.

The scale breaks foods down into four groups: (1) Unprocessed or minimally processed foods; (2) Processed culinary ingredients; (3) Processed foods; and (4) Ultra-processed foods.

The Experiment and Results

To test the possibility of a healthy diet with ultra-processed foods, researchers created a seven-day, 2,000-calorie menu using MyPyramid as a guide.

The menu, composed of foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders, met 2020 DGA recommendations for servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.

Foods with lower levels of saturated fats and added sugars but high in micronutrients and macronutrients were chosen.

Examples include canned beans, instant oatmeal, ultra-filtered milk, whole wheat bread, and dried fruit.

“The menu we developed scored 86 of 100 points on the Healthy Eating Index–2015, meeting most of the thresholds, except for sodium content [exceeded recommendations] and whole grains [below recommendations],” said Hess.

Implications and Future Research

While observational research suggests that ultra-processed products could be linked with adverse health outcomes, this study emphasizes the possibility of a variety of foods contributing to a healthy diet.

More research, particularly intervention studies, are needed in this field to further explore these findings.

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The study was published in The Journal of Nutrition.

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