USDA Scientists Build a Healthy Diet With 91% of Calories Coming From Ultra-Processed Foods

Woman Shopping Processed Food Supermarket

A recent study led by the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center has shown that it’s possible to construct a healthy diet with up to 91% of calories coming from ultra-processed foods, according to the NOVA scale, and still meet the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Scientists from the USDA’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center demonstrated a healthy diet could comprise up to 91% ultra-processed foods, in line with 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, although future research will assess potential adverse health effects.

Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center led a study that demonstrates it is possible to build a healthy diet with 91% of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods (as classified using the NOVA scale) while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The study highlights the versatility of using DGA recommendations in constructing healthy menus.

“The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option,” said ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of a food and its place in a food group are more important than the extent to which a food was processed.”

Understanding the NOVA Scale

In the study, scientists used the NOVA scale to determine which foods to classify as ultra-processed. The NOVA scale first appeared in literature in 2009 and is the most commonly used scale in nutrition science to classify foods by degree of processing.

According to the NOVA scale, foods can be classified into four groups depending on their degree of processing:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients.
  3. Processed foods.
  4. Ultra-processed foods.

Experiment Details

To test if ultra-processed foods can be used to build a healthy diet, ARS scientists and collaborators created a menu with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks using MyPyramid as a guide for a seven-day, 2,000-calorie food pattern The menu consisted of foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders. The foods included in the menu also aligned with 2020 DGA recommendations for servings of groups and subgroups of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy.

Scientists selected food products that have lower levels of saturated fats and added sugars while still containing enough micronutrients and macronutrients. Some of the ultra-processed foods used in this menu included canned beans, instant oatmeal, ultra-filtered milk, whole wheat bread, and dried fruit.

“We used the Healthy Eating Index to assess the quality of the diet as it aligns with key DGA recommendations,” said Hess. “The menu we developed scored 86 of 100 points on the Healthy Eating Index-2015, meeting most of the thresholds, except for sodium content [exceeded recommendations] and whole grains [below recommendations].”

Future Research Directions

While this study has provided valuable insights, more work is on the horizon. Scientists aim to delve deeper into the subject, acknowledging that some observational research studies indicate that ultra-processed products could be associated with adverse health outcomes.

This research shows that there is a role for a variety of foods when building a healthy diet and that more research is needed in this field, especially intervention studies.

Details of the study were published in The Journal of Nutrition.

Reference: “Dietary Guidelines Meet NOVA: Developing a Menu for A Healthy Dietary Pattern Using Ultra-Processed Foods” by Julie M. Hess, Madeline E. Comeau, Shanon Casperson, Joanne L. Slavin, Guy H. Johnson, Mark Messina, Susan Raatz, Angela J. Scheett, Anne Bodensteiner and Daniel G. Palmer, 24 June 2023, The Journal of Nutrition.
DOI: 10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.06.028

Authors of the study are Julie M. Hess (USDA-ARS), Madeline E. Comeau (USDA-ARS), Shanon Casperson (USDA-ARS), Joanne L. Slavin (University of Minnesota), Guy H. Johnson (Johnson Nutrition Solutions, LLC), Mark Messina (Soy Nutrition Institute Global), Susan Raatz (University of Minnesota), Angela J. Scheett (USDA-ARS), Anne Bodensteiner (University of North Dakota), Daniel G. Palmer (USDA-ARS).

20 Comments on "USDA Scientists Build a Healthy Diet With 91% of Calories Coming From Ultra-Processed Foods"

  1. The government is trying to kill us slowly. The long-term effects of ultra processed food equals Death by cancer or some other nefarious disease down the line. Eat Whole Foods, never processed food.

    • The government is not trying to kill us the government at worst needs us to work and pay taxes… It is the outsized influence of industry that also doesn’t want to kill us, but it’s perfectly happy to make us sick if there is a large profit involved, and there is.
      The only folks who push back against this is a few politicians on the left.
      I thought maybe Trump would be different but alas, he is worse .

      • The USDA is an aimless sham of an organization that constantly propagates untruth and untrustworthy information. This is the same organization that wants us to believe that GMO’s are same for human consumption when clearly they are not. The USDA is in bed with Monsanto and big pharmaceutical companies for the sake of profit. Our food supply, our water supply our soil is literally poisoned in the name of profit. Just like the American Healthcare system, all of the sake of profit. American families do nor deserve to have their financial futures decimated by the health crisis of a loved one. Incidents of cancer and diabetes are exploding and the medication is for most cost prohibitive even with insurance. The day that insurance companies were given the ability to practice medicine by approving and denying treatment due to costs and able to usurp the experience of our doctors was a dark day in the country. No one suffering a medical crisis should have to cross thier figures hoping for approval. No one cares about health. They care about profit. This article is a sham.

  2. “Trust” the “Science”
    Eat our s*** and die slowly.

    USDA can suck it.

  3. As always, let’s try to finagle some research to support the status quo, which is slow death by constant, cumulative poisoning by thousands of man made chemicals and lack of nutrition.

  4. The diet was not deficient in nutrients. That does not mean it was not harmful. This is a thought experiment that shows the limits of the USDA and the Dietary Guidelines. Not all ultra-processed foods are harmful. Some are. High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to health concerns ranging from increased risk of obesity, hypertension, breast and colorectal cancer to dying prematurely from all causes. Why does the USDA allow us to eat toxic foods that are banned in other countries?

  5. Carnivore for life | August 31, 2023 at 9:00 am | Reply

    I’ll stick with the grassfed beef and free range egg diet with local farm produce only that has cured my arthritis and melted the 30 lbs of bodyfat off of me in just a couple months, thank you. Went from fat 40 year old to six pack abs and feeling/looking in my 20s by axing all the grain & sugar from my diet.

  6. Ridiculous. Firstly, the food pyramid is created by over and covert lobbyists, and is, therefore no surprise awful .
    Secondly, hey, we figured out a way to do with it processed foods… But we’re not really sure it’s OK time will tall …
    I feel like we’re bizarro world.

  7. The food industry poisons us and the for-profit medical system sells us drugs, not to cure us but to keep us alive so we can keep paying for treatments that do not work.

  8. This is a load of BS. These “scientists” should lose their credentials.

  9. As a physician I can verify that this is wrong and very dangerous. I am relieved to see so many comments saying as much. The public is not as stupid as the USDA thinks it is. The USDA has misguided the public so many times in the past and it seems that tradition continues.

  10. Indeed, our government is trying to kill us slowly as we have become the profit potential for American business. This USDA thought experiment is a very good example. Formed during the Depression and meant to protect citizens and food, all government programs, including the USDA, is to not harm American BUSINESSES. This example shows the government protecting processed food businesses and not citizen health. Health information is suppressed while businesses are promoted. After 20-30 years, we are then at the mercy of Big Pharma, Big Medicine, and the Insurance Industry. Eat plant-based whole food and never any oil. Opt out of this fascist system.

  11. If you ate what the FDA suggested, you would be cancer stricken within 6 months …

  12. Everyone knows processed foods are a major cause of diabetes and cancer.

  13. Since when is dried fruit in the same category or soft drinks? How about canned beans? I’d go for old fashioned oats before quick oats, but still wouldn’t categorize either as ultra processed.

    And incase the question is “who are you to make such judgements”, I’ll direct you to this article:

    Apparently nobody can come up with consistent decisions about what categories such foods fall into. It becomes less curious why only two people were needed to agree how to categorize these foods. What about the other couple hundred graders that maybe disagreed? (From the article: “The menu consisted of foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders.”)

  14. Yeah, this is ridiculous and the people who published it should be ashamed. My brother works in a “food” processing plant and has worked at a few others before this. All I can say about that is don’t eat Duke’s mayonnaise if you don’t like eating maggots, but if it’s fine there I guarantee every other factory is the same. Why else are there constant outbreaks of listeria and chronobacter from processed foods? And don’t get me started on this “NOVA scale.”

  15. Ignore this article and eat unprocessed or minimally processed, nutrient dense foods if you want to be healthy. Processing is mostly about increasing shelf life of a product, not benefitting your health. There are a lot of other problems with what the scientists are proposing here.

  16. What a waste of resources.

  17. The title of this is so laughable that I couldn’t get beyond it to read the story. The comment section has far better information than anything the article has to say. It’s good to see so many people who are so well informed. Much love people.

  18. Are all our institutions corrupt these days? Or just oblivious?
    I hope the USDA meant to steer people to less-eggregious processed-food options if they can’t afford good, whole foods.
    But when “Ultra Processed” includes both dried fruit (!?!) and Velveeta, the term loses all meaning, giving people a false sense that what’s bad might be good.
    If their aim was to expose flaws in the Healthy Eating Index-2015 or NOVA, sadly the popular takeaway is eat more Cheetos.
    These scientists have mostly done damage and decimated trust. I wonder if they’re as immune to class-action suits as they think?

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