Let's start at the beginning. What is food?
Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for an organism. Food is usually of plant, animal, or fungal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals.
Nowadays, food takes various forms, and navigating what we should and shouldn't be eating can be challenging. The NOVA classification system was designed by the Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo. This aims to help people make healthier food choices and classifies foods as:
Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Unprocessed: edible parts of plants (fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, roots, tubers) or animals (muscle, offals, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
Minimally processed: unprocessed foods altered by industrial processes such as removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, non-alcoholic fermentation, and other methods that do not add salt, sugar, oils or fats or other food substances to the original food. The main aim of these processes is to extend the life of unprocessed foods.
Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients
Substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting or mining. Their use is in preparing, seasoning and cooking group 1 foods.
Group 3: Processed foods
Products made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods. Preservation methods such as canning, bottling, and, in the case of breads and cheeses, non-alcoholic fermentation are used. Processes and ingredients here aim to increase the life of group 1 foods and make them more enjoyable by modifying or enhancing their sensory qualities.
Group 4: Ultra-processed food and drink products
These are formulations of ingredients combined via industrial processes, often requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.
Processes involve fractioning whole foods into substances, chemical modifications, assembly of unmodified and modified food substances using industrial techniques, frequent application of additives to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable, and packaging, usually with synthetic materials. Ingredients often include:
Sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup
Flavour enhancers and colourings
Emulsifiers, sweeteners, and thickeners
Anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling, and glazing agents.
Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable and attractive, with long shelf-life, and can be consumed anywhere at any time. Their formulation, presentation and marketing often promote overconsumption.
Altogether, they are energy-dense, high in unhealthy types of fat, refined starches, free sugars and salt, and poor sources of protein, dietary fibre and micronutrients.
So what should we be eating?
Ideally, our diets should consist predominantly of foods from groups one, two, and three. However, studies based on NOVA show that ultra-processed products now dominate the food supplies of various high-income countries and are increasingly pervasive in lower and middle-income countries.
The evidence so far shows that the displacement of minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals by ultra-processed products is associated with unhealthy dietary nutrient profiles and several diet-related non-communicable diseases.
Ultra-processed products are also troublesome from social, cultural, economic, political and environmental points of view. The ever-increasing production and consumption of these products is a world crisis which must be confronted, checked and reversed as part of the work of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and its Decade of Nutrition.
The importance of regenerative farming
I've previously written about the art of cooking and the importance of regenerative agriculture. While cooking is indeed a form of art, it is also essential to providing us with nourishing food. But where does the food we cook come from? The land. Agricultural land counts for around 50% of land globally. If we continue to consume food as we are currently, we will continue along our path of environmental degradation.
Regenerative farming is a vision of the future for global food production that combines indigenous knowledge with western science and technology. This will provide safe and nutritious food while reversing our greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering (storing) carbon in the soil where it belongs. It is also essential for reversing our biodiversity loss, and providing other ecosystem services which you can read more about here.
Changing our eating habits
Our current food systems and increasing overconsumption of ultra-processed foods are destroying our planet. My mission with 50 Ways To Cook is to enable and inspire you to become more mindful and sustainable in the kitchen and to promote and advocate for local nature-friendly food systems that work in harmony with our ecosystems.
While it would be great to get everyone on board, I think educating the next generation will be paramount for creating the changes we need.