USDA scientists have demonstrated that a healthy diet can be achieved with up to 91% of calories coming from ultra-processed foods.
The research, conducted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, found that by carefully selecting ultra-processed foods, it is possible to meet the recommendations set forth by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
This significant finding challenges conventional wisdom about the role of ultra-processed foods in a healthy diet and opens up new possibilities for achieving optimal nutrition.
A significant study conducted by USDA scientists revealed that a healthy diet could incorporate up to 91% ultra-processed foods while adhering to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
This research, spearheaded by scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, demonstrates the flexibility of the DGA recommendations in constructing healthful meal plans.
“The study serves as a proof-of-concept, showcasing a more balanced perspective on healthy eating patterns, where ultra-processed foods can be a viable option. According to current dietary guidelines, the nutrient content of a food and its classification within a food group hold greater significance than the extent to which a food has been processed.”Julie Hess, ARS Research Nutritionist – Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center
Assessing Food Processing Using the NOVA Scale
In the study, scientists employed the NOVA scale to categorize foods as ultra-processed. The NOVA scale, introduced in 2009, serves as the most widely adopted framework in nutrition research for classifying foods based on their level of processing.
The NOVA scale classifies foods into four groups according to their processing intensity:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (Group 1)
These foods are derived directly from plants or animals and have undergone minimal processing. Examples include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plain yogurt.
- Processed culinary ingredients (Group 2)
These foods are typically extracted or refined from unprocessed foods. Examples include oil, salt, sugar, and spices.
- Processed foods (Group 3)
These foods are created by combining unprocessed or minimally processed foods with small amounts of processed culinary ingredients. Examples include canned beans, baked bread, and sliced cheese.
- Ultra-processed foods (Group 4)
These foods are highly processed and contain ingredients that are not commonly found in home kitchens. Examples include sugary cereals, packaged snack foods, and processed meats.
Harnessing Ultra-Processed Foods for a Nutritious Diet
Driven by the question of whether ultra-processed foods can be incorporated into a wholesome dietary pattern, ARS scientists and partners crafted a seven-day, 2,000-calorie meal plan guided by MyPyramid principles.
The carefully curated menu, comprising foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders, aligned with the 2020 DGA recommendations for servings of various food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.
In selecting ultra-processed food items, scientists prioritized those with lower levels of saturated fats and added sugars, ensuring they still provided essential micronutrients and macronutrients. Examples included canned beans, instant oatmeal, ultra-filtered milk, whole wheat bread, and dried fruit.
To evaluate the diet’s nutritional adequacy, the Healthy Eating Index-2015 was employed. The devised menu garnered an impressive score of 86 out of 100, meeting most of the recommended thresholds, with exceptions being sodium content (exceeded recommendations) and whole grains (below recommendations).
This study’s findings demonstrate the versatility of ultra-processed foods, suggesting that they can be strategically incorporated into a healthy diet, provided careful selection and portion control.
The study’s conclusion challenges conventional notions and opens up new possibilities for achieving optimal nutrition, emphasizing the importance of nutrient content and food group representation over processing level.
Unveiling the Potential of Ultra-Processed Foods: Expanding Nutritional Horizons
While this study has yielded significant findings, it serves as a springboard for further exploration. Scientists are eager to delve deeper into this realm, acknowledging that some observational studies suggest a link between ultra-processed foods and detrimental health outcomes.
This research highlights the diverse role of food choices in crafting a healthy diet, emphasizing the need for ongoing research, particularly intervention studies, to fully comprehend the impact of ultra-processed foods on our well-being.
A proposed topic for the 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) Scientific Advisory Committee to address is the relationship between dietary patterns with ultra-processed foods (UPF) and body composition and weight status. Implementing the NOVA system, the most commonly applied framework for determining whether a food is “ultra-processed,” in dietary guidance could omit several nutrient-dense foods from recommended healthy diets in the DGA.
The purpose of this proof-of-concept study was to determine the feasibility of building a menu that aligns with recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern from the 2020 DGA and includes ≥80% kcal from UPF as defined by NOVA.
To accomplish this objective, we first developed a list of foods that fit NOVA criteria for UPF, fit within dietary patterns in the 2020 DGA, and are commonly consumed by Americans. We then used these foods to develop a 7-d, 2000 kcal menu modeled on MyPyramid sample menus and assessed this menu for nutrient content as well as for diet quality using the Healthy Eating Index-2015 (HEI-2015).
In the ultra-processed DGA menu that was created, 91% of kcal were from UPF, or NOVA category 4. The HEI-2015 score was 86 out of a possible 100 points. This sample menu did not achieve a perfect score due primarily to excess sodium and an insufficient amount of whole grains. This menu provided adequate amounts of all macro- and micronutrients except vitamin D, vitamin E, and choline.
Healthy dietary patterns can include most of their energy from UPF, still receive a high diet quality score, and contain adequate amounts of most macro- and micronutrients.