WASHINGTON — Because the effects of ultra-processed foods on human health have not been thoroughly vetted through scientific research, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee should be cautious in incorporating the topic in its dietary guidance, according to numerous industry groups.

The discussion about ultra-processed foods (UPFs) were part of video comments submitted to the DGAC for the committee’s third public meeting held Sept. 12-13.

Among dozens of questions posed by the various DGAC subcommittees regarding dietary patterns, beverages, diet during pregnancy and childhood and food pattern modeling, a question about ultra-processed foods elicited a particularly strong response from numerous food industry groups.

The question on ultra-processed food was posed by a subcommittee reviewing dietary patterns and specific dietary pattern components across life stages. Nearly all the 10 questions from the subcommittee seek views about the relationship between “dietary patterns consumed” and the risk of various diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and different kinds of cancer. The fourth question, though, focuses on ultra-processed foods:

“What is the relationship between consumption of dietary patterns with varying amounts of ultra-processed foods and growth, body composition, and risk of obesity?”

Raising concern about the lack of consensus in defining processed foods and the variability in classification systems used in scientific research, Allison Cooke, vice president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), spoke on behalf of the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance (FBIA).

“FBIA members caution the committee from making strong recommendations” on subcommittee 1’s question due to the lack of consensus on defining UPFs and the predominantly observational nature of the evidence, she said. “The committee should ensure that any definition of ultra-processed foods does not include otherwise healthy foods that promote nutrition security and ensure that consumer-facing messages clearly define which kinds of ultra-processed foods to avoid.”

Ms. Cooke suggested not relying solely on the NOVA classification system, a process by which foods are assigned to four categories based on how much processing goes into manufacturing them, for reviewing evidence, as it may not consider nutrient content and may lead to inconsistent conclusions, she said.

She emphasized the benefits of food processing and warned against the creation of a "good food-bad food system."

The Grain Chain (a coalition of associations advocating for the grain-based foods industry) illustrated the impact of using inconsistent categories for foods according to processing level. They shared that enriched grains have been misconstrued as UPFs, which is problematic as they make up 95% of all refined grains and are an important, affordable source of nutrition, said Sam Schneider, chair of the nutrition subcommittee for USA Rice.

“We recommend the committee to discontinue using the term until there is consensus on an evidence-based definition,” said Jennifer Norka, MPH, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI).

“Studies investigating ultra-processed foods and their impacts on human health are an important, yet emerging area of nutrition research,” said Mitch Kanter, PhD, chief science officer of The Alliance for Potato Research & Education.

Maya Vadiveloo, PhD, RD, on behalf of the American Heart Association, requested that the committee expand its review of UPFs to include cardiometabolic disorders, once a formal definition has been set. Dr. Vadiveloo is an assistant professor of nutrition and health sciences in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of Rhode Island.

Many commenters asked the committee to consider the benefits food processing can provide, including a longer shelf life and reduced food waste, food safety and security, improved nutrition, permitting food diversity, offering convenience and affordability.