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Sponsored post: The case for or against ultra-processed foods is ‘tricky.’ Novel foodtech adds further nuance

June 4, 2024

Editors Note: The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is a global organization of over 11,000 individual members from more than 90 countries committed to advancing the science of food. Since 1939, IFT has brought together the brightest minds in food science, technology and related professions from academia, government, and industry to solve the world’s greatest food challenges.


What’s the best way to identify healthy foods? Is it the nutrients they contain or the level of processing used to make them?

Increasingly, scientists, nutritionists, government bodies and consumers alike are trying to untangle the value of categorizing ultra-processed foods (UPFs) — those that contain ingredients you may or may not have in your kitchen like artificial colors, preservatives and stabilizers, to name a few, and processes that are unique to industrial-scale production.

Scientific journals are increasingly publishing studies highlighting the health risks associated with UPFs, among them heart disease, stroke, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancers and all-cause mortality (a medical term for death from any cause).

Despite these studies showing correlations, others argue that the case for or against UPFs is not so cut and dry, that the definition of “ultra-processed” remains unclear, and that the NOVA system (a globally used system to classify foods) does not factor nutrition into its classification process. For example, one study from Harvard found that UPFs as a category is diverse, with “many items that are considered healthy.”

Similarly, a recent IFT white paper notes that, “Some current initiatives focused on nutrition and public health conflate the lines between processing and formulation. This has led to consumer confusion and the misconception that processing alone makes foods less nutritious and sustainable for people and planet.”

The variety of foods classified as UPFs worsens this confusion. From lunch meats (e.g., ham), sodas and corn chips to breads, yogurts and plant-based milks, the range of food categories that make up UPFs is broad.

All of which is to say, defining UPFs is a tricky task, one that’s only going to get more challenging as novel ingredients, protein alternatives (cultivated or plant based) and new processing technologies proliferate.

In an effort to untangle the confusion around UPFs, IFT is bringing together a panel of experts to overview some of the changes in categorization and technologies included.

The panel, which will form part of the IFT FIRST: Annual Event and Expo in Chicago in July, will offer an overview of recent advances in the characterization of UPFs, the impact of innovative ingredients and technologies on their quality and safety, expectations and perceptions of consumers, the influence of UPF consumption on nutrition and health, and building healthy dietary patterns with UPFs. Researchers from academic institutes, the USDA ARS, and the National Institute of Health will participate.

“They each look at UPFs from a different angle,” Anna Rosales, IFT’s senior director of government affairs and nutrition, says of the participating panelists.

“From human-intervention research and dietary modeling to possible mechanisms that differentiate UPFs, our panel will discuss what we know now about UPFs and what we need to research further to better untangle the confusion and gain scientific consensus.”

One of the speakers, Julie Hess, a research nutritionist at Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center at USDA ARS, is especially focused on what she calls “the intersection of recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and ultra-processed foods as they are currently defined by a categorization system called NOVA.”

In 2023, her lab published a proof-of-concept study that suggests it’s feasible to develop a menu that aligns with DGA recommendations while still including most of its calories from UPFs.

Image credit: IFT First

Also on the menu at IFT First

Besides UPFs, another major topic on the table for IFT FIRST this year will be the role of AI and its capacity to advance prediction, discovery and design of food innovation. For example, Monday’s keynote, Revolutionizing Food Innovation Through AI, will explore the role of collaboration between humans and machines in advancing predictive analytics, precision engineering, biotechnology and food product development.

The following day, Brightseed co-founder Jim Flatt and NotCo co-founder Karim Pichara will host a Fireside Chat to tackle the question of how AI can revolutionize food.

Cleaner eating is top of mind for many consumers these days as rates of diabetes and obesity increase. IFT FIRST will address the promise of AI in this area with a panel outlining ways companies can leverage it to improve formulations that connect ingredients, chemical and physical measurements, sensory evaluations and consumer preferences.

Digging a little deeper into the science and tech of AI, another panel, sponsored by ERP platform Infor, will discuss the ways in which AI and product lifecycle management tech can accelerate product development and enhance market responsiveness. Alianza Team will dive into the role of machine learning and deep learning in refining the design of lipid products for the food industry.

Finally, early arrivals to Chicago have the chance to participate in a two-day workshop on July 13-14: Exploring Artificial Intelligence for Next-Level Food Innovation.

“Whether you’re talking about AI, food as medicine or sustainable agriculture, it has to come together collaboratively and this is on full display at IFT FIRST. Food science is the middle sector of the food system that uniquely links farm to fork, and is perfectly positioned to foster food system collaboration and innovation.” notes Rosales.

IFT FIRST will take place July 14–17 this year, with an expected 17,000 attendees from over 70 countries in attendance. To learn more or to register, go to iftfirst.org.

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