Blog Feb 2024

Nutrition & Processing

Ultra processed food is one of the hottest topics in the sector. Learn more about why there’s so much controversy, so little by way of consensus, and the opportunities available...

In this insight, we summarise the takeaways from our Food Hub interview with Dr Helen Clubb on the topic of ultra-processed food. Helen originally trained as a physicist, and has been working on multidisciplinary food and beverage projects at Innovia for more than ten years. It follows that she is also an incredible cook: her homemade marshmallows are particularly well received in the office.

To watch the full interview, please visit


What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed food (UPF) is a decades-old concept, originally developed to help scientists better understand the relationship between diet and health outcomes. In the academic research which led to the birth of the concept, it was found that meaningful correlations only existed between health outcomes and broader food categories, and not between specific food types. This led to the development of the NOVA Framework, which classifies foods according to the level of processing they have received. UPF is typically considered to be a food that has been produced in industry, is high in fat, salt and sugar, and contains additives. However, this definition remains controversial due to several challenges against the science underpinning the NOVA framework.


Is the Nova framework reflective of the current science in nutrition and health?

We still have a lot to understand. NOVA has inspired research focused on the mechanisms happening around food as it is processed in the body. For example, when you eat a whole apple, you’re ingesting a lot of water, fibre and fructose. The presence of the water and the fibre will make a big difference to what the body does with the fructose. If you drink apple juice instead, your body will absorb that fructose more quickly, and as a result will deal with it in a different way. A lot of this science, surrounding the ways in which the body processes food, is still emerging.


So is all food processing bad?

Absolutely not. I think we forget just how much we’ve gained from food processing. Food processing has radically reduced the incidence of foodborne disease, and the cost of feeding the world. We wouldn’t be able to feed the 8 billion people on our planet if we didn’t have processed food.


Why can’t we just use what we know about UPF to make food better?

Some of the mechanisms that are proposed to explain the correlations between diet and health outcomes relate to modifications made to the matrix of the food. But you need to change the matrix to create desirable textures, e.g. making foods crispy or crunchy. There is a potential trade-off between making foods that are desirable and foods that are optimised for the body – but remember that the science here is still unclear. If the trade-off is real then it will be hard to innovate around!


What advice would you give to people working in food companies or industry on how to approach the topic of UPF?

Remember that there is no such thing as an “unhealthy food”. There is only an “unhealthy diet”. So it can be considered “fine” to eat these foods in moderation, but it’s their excessive consumption that we need to be worried about. Overall, it’s a very complex topic, with a set of problems that no food company can solve on its own. But there is an opportunity for companies to make a positive change through helping their consumers to enjoy processed foods in moderation, and as part of an overall healthy diet.

If you want to know more on ultra-processed foods, please get in touch or visit: