Nutrition Diva

A provocative new study on ultra-processed foods

Episode Summary

I’ve argued in the past that “processed” is really too broad a brush to apply. We really need to take into consideration what the purpose of the processing is before we demonize a food as being too processed.

Episode Notes

Dr. Julie Hess joins the show to discuss a surprising proof-of-concept study that shows that processed foods may not be the villains we think of them as.

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. Have a nutrition question? Send an email to or leave a voicemail at 443-961-6206.

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Nutrition Diva is a part of Quick and Dirty Tips.


Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to the Nutrition Diva podcast. I’m your host, Monica Reinagel. 

Over the course of my decades in the nutrition field, I’ve seen a lot of dietary villains come and go and come again: fat, carbs, meat, sugar. But the villain-of-the-moment is definitely ultra-processed foods. And, by proxy, the food manufacturers who produce them. 

I’ve argued in the past that “processed” is really too broad a brush to apply. We really need to take into consideration what the purpose of the processing is before we demonize a food as being too processed. We also need to think about how a given processed food functions in our diet before we decide whether it can be allowed to stay. 

Part of the problem with this whole discussion is that there isn’t a single definition or set of criteria for what constitutes processed food. For better or worse, the NOVA classification seems to be emerging as the most widely used system, especially in nutrition research. 

I’ve talked in previous episodes about some of the limitations of the NOVA classification. For one thing, it’s difficult even for nutrition professionals to decide what category a food falls into. Secondly, a lot of foods that I certainly think of as healthful are considered ultra-processed in the NOVA classification.

And all of this is quite relevant at the moment, because the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are due to be updated again. One of the questions that the scientific advisory committee is going be tackling this time around is the relationship between ultra-processed foods and health—and they specifically seem interested in things like whether or not they contribute to overweight and obesity, as opposed to other sorts of health outcomes.

Joining me to talk about all of this is Dr. Julie Hess. Dr. Hess is a Research Nutritionist with the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, ND. Her research focuses on how to improve both U.S. dietary guidance and the eating patterns of Americans. 

Julie recently published the results of a study that upends some of the widely held assumptions about processed foods. It was a proof of concept study, in which they wanted to see whether they could come up with a 7-day meal plan composed almost entirely of ultra-processed foods (as defined by NOVA) that would still meet the criteria for a healthy diet pattern, as defined by its Healthy Eating Index score.   

They actually overshot their goal. They were shooting for a 2000-calorie diet that got at least 80% of the calories from UPF and aligned with the recommended guidelines for protein, carbohydrates, fats, and most of the micronutrients. They anticipated that their UPF diet would probably exceed the recommendations for sodium and sugar, and for that reason, would probably get an HEI score of 80 or less. (For reference, the HEI score for the typical American hovers around 58.)

They ended up with a 7-day meal plan that got 91% of its calories from NOVA 4 foods and still met the dietary guidelines for protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, potassium, saturated fats, and added sugars. The only nutrients that were below the dietary reference intakes were vitamins D, E, and choline—and even there, they were at about 75% of the recommended amounts. When they calculated the HEI, they actually scored an 86 out of possible 100. 

Obviously, I wanted to get Dr. Hess on the podcast to ask her more about this provocative study.

In our conversation, we talk about:

  1. How the NOVA definitions could be modified to make the system more valid and/or useful? 
  2. Whether the degree of processing is actually a helpful way to evaluate individual foods or diets.
  3. Research done by other groups on UPFs and their impact on calorie intake and weight gain, and the questions they left unanswered.
  4. How a minimally processed diet and ultra-processed diet compare in terms of cost and labor, and the implications of this.
  5. Whether a healthy ultra-processed diet is possible

If you have comments or questions about today’s show, please send to or leave a message at 443-961-6206. I’d be happy to answer those in future episodes.

I also wanted to mention a special program I am offering with registered dietitian and self-compassion expert Cassie Christopher. It focuses on Body Image Repair and Resilience. We are so excited about this collaboration and this work. If you’d like to hear more about what led us to this topic you can check out our conversation on the Change Academy podcast. And there’s also more information about the program itself at