Ultraprocessed Foods and Cancer

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Consumption of ultraprocessed foods may be associated with an increased risk of cancer, particularly postmenopausal breast cancer.
Consumption of ultraprocessed foods may be associated with an increased risk of cancer, particularly postmenopausal breast cancer.

The food supply is known to be changing throughout the world, with increased availability of highly processed foods in high-resource and middle-resource countries.1 In response to this, the NOVA food classification system was developed, which categorizes foods according to the extent of its processing, accounting for the nature and purpose of the processing.

NOVA Classification

The NOVA classification includes 4 groups: unprocessed or minimally processed; processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultraprocessed foods.1 Unprocessed or minimally processed foods consist of edible parts of plants or animals that are not processed or are processed through simple cooking or packaging methods to preserve the natural food, such as the processing that typically occurs with commercial fruits, meats, eggs, and milk.

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Processed culinary ingredients are similar, but are intended to be used with other foods. Processed foods are those that are preserved to increase durability and/or enhance their sensory qualities; these usually contain approximately 2 or 3 ingredients, such as what is seen with some breads and cheeses. Ultraprocessed foods are those that are considered formulations made from derivatives of food substances and additives, such as frozen dishes, reconstituted meat products, and sweet or savory snacks.

A criticism of this classification system is that the definitions of different food products is open to interpretation and therefore, the labels are subjective, making it difficult to use the NOVA classification system to conduct accurate epidemiologic studies.2  

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