Box 1

What are ultra-processed ‘food’ products?

Ultra-processed ‘foods’ or rather ‘edible products’ – commonly referred to as ‘junk food’ – are industrial formulations based on substances derived from natural foods and additives that make these products more appealing and enhance their shelf life. They are often high in free sugars, refined starches, saturated and trans-fats, and sodium. The excessive amount of these so-called “critical ingredients” combined with a typically low nutrient content (“empty calories”) and the addition of additives, such as colourings, emulsifiers, and taste enhancers, make UPP harmful to our health.  At the same time the sensory features that these products are designed to display (which can reach the degree of addiction) and their low satiating qualities (due to removal of fibres), combined with colourful packaging and aggressive marketing, triggers an overconsumption of these products – and a parallel displacement of real food in our diets.  

The NOVA classification system has been developed to group different foods and helps to distinguish ultra-processed edible products from real food, including processed food.

Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: These are natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts, milk, and meat that are either unaltered or minimally processed, for example by peeling, cutting, grinding, drying, freezing, cooking, pasteurization, or non-alcoholic fermentation. There is no addition of salt, sugar, oils, or other additives.

Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients: Directly obtained from Group 1 foods or from nature, these are substances used for cooking and seasoning meals. They include sugar, salt, oils, and fats. 

Group 3 – Processed foods: These food products are made by adding culinary ingredients (Group 2 foods) to natural or minimally processed foods (Group 1 foods) with the aim of making them more durable and enjoyable. Examples are fresh cheeses, freshly baked breads, and bottled/canned vegetables and legumes (in saltwater/marinade).

Group 4 – Ultra-processed products: These are industrial formulations of edible substances derived from low-cost Group 1 foods and other organic substances. Among these are ingredients not found in normal kitchens (i.e., of purely industrial use), such as protein isolates, as well as cosmetic additives, such as colours and flavours, that make the product look and taste more appealing. The products undergo multiple steps of processing involving different industries – hence they are “ultra-processed”. Examples are packaged crisps and other sweet or salty snacks, chocolates, ice cream, candy, sweetened drinks, sweetened and flavoured breakfast cereals, instant soups, and pre-prepared pasta and meat dishes.

References:  Global Food Research Program, 2023, Ultra-processed foods: a global threat to public health.

Monteiro et al. 2019. Ultra-processed foods: What they are and how to identify them, in Public Health Nutrition.

Box 2

Direct sourcing from small-scale food producers for food aid schemes in the US

In recent years, the United States has seen a rise in programs connecting local farms with food assistance partners like food banks, pantries, and grassroots efforts to combat hunger. Known as Farm to Food Assistance (F2FA), these initiatives offer a promising strategy for addressing food insecurity among the 44 million food-insecure Americans with real food rather than UPP. They also play a role in revitalizing local and regional food economies, which are foundational to a community-driven and equitable food system. The Wallace Center’s 2022 National Farm to Food Assistance Survey[1] highlights the positive impact of these programs on farmers and communities.

While F2FA do not fully shift the need to rethink how hunger relief and poverty eradication are addressed in the United States, these efforts are transitional and challenge the dominance of the corporate industrial food system through redistribution of public funds. For example, the USDA’s Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA) fosters partnerships between state agencies, tribal governments, food banks, pantries, and farmers to source and distribute food, benefiting local socially disadvantaged producers and underserved communities with a $900 million budget.

Iowa and New Mexico[2] are standout states in the LFPA program, showcasing highly collaborative, strategic, and equity-centered approaches. In their first year, these states saw close to $4 million in new sales for farmers, enabling them to provide nutritious food to communities in need.

Box 3

Lab-grown proteins

Lab-grown proteins pose a direct threat to food sovereignty. This new market serves to protect the financial interests of corporations and cement an even greater concentration of power, while these ultra-processed and often genetically modified foods have huge economic, social, environmental, and cultural impacts. Public funds should not be attributed to this technology. Policymakers must rather support the farming sector, to ensure numerous farmers on the land. EU institutions should ensure a thorough and independent assessment of the potentially destructive consequences of lab-grown proteins before allowing them anywhere near people’s plates. Find out what’s at stake for farmers and citizens alike in ECVC’s video on lab grown proteins and accompanying fact sheet:

Video here, factsheet here, webpage to both on ECVC website.

Box 4

Law to combat food waste and the right to food in Spain

Today, being in a state of social exclusion means having limited choices, even in your eating habits. The population in general is affected by multiple influences, but those who are in a situation of poverty experience a lack of perspective of rights in access to food on a daily basis. A basic right such as food is subject to multiple constraints in order to access a range of products deemed to be “basic”. Instead of nourishing our bodies, these products continue to feed the interests of multinationals and an unequal food system that places the market at the centre and not the needs and rights of all people.

Another example of this is the food waste law in Spain, which will formalise the link between impoverished people and leftover food. This law will force all leftover food to be consumed as a priority by people in vulnerable situations. This would be positive if it included a differentiation of products according to their nutritional value and put the health of these people at the forefront, but instead the focus is on solving the food waste problem of big business without really reducing the problem, while treating impoverished people as an object and limiting any choice in their food.

Moreover, this new, publicly funded scheme will not be managed by public institutions, but by the Red Cross, a private entity, thus privatising social welfare, at least as far as food aid is concerned. The aid will be managed through digital cards for purchases in large supermarkets, which will be limited to certain products that the large supermarkets decide when they are considered “waste”.

In response to this, initiatives are already being organised by the population to support the most vulnerable with healthy and agroecological food. From the perspective of community-supported agriculture, producers and consumers are organising support groups to be able to provide healthy food for people living in poverty. This gives hope, but also brings sadness because once again a basic right such as food will not be sustained through the responsibility of the institutions.

Box 5

Food challenges: Fighting the corporate diet in Latin America

In recent decades, we have witnessed the consolidation of an agri-food system that perpetuates poverty and inequalities, favours the economic interests of large industries and weakens ecosystems, and that, instead of favouring real food, has led to the decline of biodiversity and the imposition of the corporate diet. This regime, based on the consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, has triggered a worrying increase in cases of people being overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).  Recent data reveals that since 1975, obesity has increased almost threefold and is now responsible for 4 million deaths per year globally. In the Americas, NCDs cause 5.5 million deaths annually, equivalent to 80% of all deaths. Each year, 2.2 million people between the ages of 30 and 69 in the region die prematurely from these diseases.

In this context, where the realisation of the Human Right to Adequate Food and Nutrition and food sovereignty has been constantly violated, civil society has led efforts to regulate the widespread availability of ultra-processed food and drink products and their consequent increase in consumption, which has displaced traditional eating patterns where real food, with minimal processing and home preparation, prevailed. The struggle to regulate this industry includes the implementation of clear labelling to warn of harmful health contents and the application of taxes on ultra-processed food and drink products—regulatory developments that have been recommended by bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). However, these initiatives face strong interference from food industry corporations, who seek above all other objectives to protect their commercial interests. As a result, they often distort or block regulatory measures intended to protect public health and promote adequate food. The struggle for a fairer and healthier food system thus finds itself in a constant confrontation between civil society efforts and commercial interests that perpetuate a model that is unsustainable and detrimental to human and planetary health.

For more on the fight against the corporate diet in Latin America see: Alianza por la salud alimentaria (Mexico), FIAN Colombia, Proyecto Squatters y Colectivo Duda (Argentina).

Box 6

Fighting the rise of Ultra-processed ‘Food’ Products (UPFs)/Junk Foods in India

India is known as the diabetic capital of the world—1 in 4 adults is either diabetic or pre-diabetic and 1 in 4 is obese. Junk food consumption is rising rapidly, making diets unhealthy and a major factor in this epidemic. While the Government of India has put in place regulations on advertisement and labelling to address the aggressive marketing of such foods, these regulations are ineffective by design. Given this background, the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), a public health interest independent think tank, analysed advertisements and challenged the celebrities endorsing them. It compiled all the scientific evidence and shared it all over India. In 2022 the Government of India issued a draft policy to allocate stars on the front of junk food packets, which declared that pre-packaged food could be ‘less healthy’ to ‘healthiest’. People of India sent thousands of letters demanding warning labels placed on the front of the packets instead of the stars.  This way people can more easily identify food products that are unhealthy by being high in sugar/salt or fats. NAPi also mobilized several civil society and academic organisations to issue a position statement,  demanding a warning label on packaging for food that is high in sugars/salt or fats. The media supported this work wholeheartedly. Civil society groups also filed several complaints to the consumer protection authority. Calling for a comprehensive policy, NAPi in 2023 launched “The Junk Push” report, highlighting how aggressively junk food is being advertised. Experts wrote opinion pieces in the daily newspapers and published reviews in the peer-reviewed journals.

#EndTheJunkPush, more info here.


[2] and