Concern is growing about the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health. These are foods that have been heavily modified from their original form and often contain high levels of added salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats (HFSS foods) They are designed to be highly palatable, making them hard to resist and often leading to overconsumption. As these foods become more prevalent in our diets, it’s crucial to find effective ways to identify and regulate them to promote healthier eating habits.

A recent study led by Professor Barry Popkin along with Dr. Donna Miles, Dr. Lindsey Taillie, and Dr. Elizabeth Dunford from the University of North Carolina has introduced a novel method to identify foods that are both ultra-processed and high in added salt, sugar, and saturated fat. This research, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, aims to aid policymakers in targeting unhealthy food products more effectively.

Over the last decade, global concern has risen about the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are industrial products designed to be hyper-palatable and are often high in unhealthy ingredients. Current methods to identify UPFs, such as the NOVA classification system, focus on the level of food processing, while criteria for high salt, sugar, and fat (HFSS) foods emphasize nutritional content but not processing. The lack of a combined approach has posed challenges for creating comprehensive food policies.

The researchers examined four approaches that combine elements of both UPF and HFSS criteria to create a more straightforward and effective method for identifying unhealthy food products. Using nationally representative data from NielsenIQ on food purchases by US households, they compared the mean proportion of product volume considered UPFs and HFSS foods under different criteria.

In their findings, half of the products purchased were considered UPFs, while just under half were classified as HFSS. The study found a noticeable discrepancy where products identified as UPFs were not captured by HFSS criteria, and vice versa. By integrating HFSS criteria with elements of UPF definitions, such as the presence of non-nutritive sweeteners, colors, and flavors, they achieved complete agreement in identifying products as both UPFs and HFSS.

Professor Popkin explained the motivation behind the study: “Our goal was to create a simple and accurate method that policymakers can use to identify unhealthy food products, considering both their nutritional content and the degree of processing.” This combined approach simplifies the identification process, ensuring that no unhealthy product slips through the cracks. It also used Codex classes of additives, an approach all food companies legally must follow. 

The study emphasized the need for a consistent and practical definition of UPFs for regulatory purposes. The inclusion of additives commonly found in UPFs, such as colors and non-nutritive sweeteners, alongside HFSS criteria, provides a robust method for policy interventions. This approach aligns with recent trends in dietary guidelines that increasingly consider food processing levels alongside nutritional content.

The implications of this research are significant for public health policy. The researchers demonstrated that combining HFSS and UPF criteria can effectively target unhealthy foods, which is crucial for developing comprehensive strategies to combat diet-related chronic diseases. The study’s findings support the implementation of more effective food labeling systems and regulatory measures to reduce the consumption of harmful foods.

In summary, Professor Popkin and his colleagues’ innovative policy approach bridges the gap between identifying ultra-processed foods and those high in unhealthy nutrients, offering a comprehensive solution for policymakers. By simplifying the identification process, this method can help guide future regulations and public health initiatives to promote healthier food choices and reduce the prevalence of diet-related health issues.

Journal Reference

Popkin, Barry M., et al. “A policy approach to identifying food and beverage products that are ultra-processed and high in added salt, sugar and saturated fat in the United States: a cross-sectional analysis of packaged foods.” The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, 2024. DOI:

About The Author

Barry M. Popkin developed the concept of the Nutrition Transition, the study of the dynamic shifts in our environment and the way they affect dietary intake and physical activity patterns and trends and obesity and other nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases. His research program focuses globally (both the US and low- and middle-income countries) on understanding the shifts in stages of the transition and programs and policies to improve the population health linked with this transition.  He  is now actively involved in work on the program and policy design and evaluation side at  global levels in an attempt to reduce demand for unhealthy food and increase that for healthy minimally processed and real food. He has received over a dozen major awards for his global contributions, including: 2016 World Obesity Society: Population Science & Public Health Award –for top global researcher in public health with also significant service contributions.; 2015; UK Rank Science Prize; and The Obesity Society Mickey Stunkard Lifetime Achievement Award.   He has published over 640 refereed journal articles and PLOS rated him as one of the top cited scholars in the world among 7 million scholars in 2017 (rated number 203 out of 6.8 million or in the top 0.003% scientists in the world; H-193; citations 221,197).