HomeHealthcareIdentikit of ultraprocessed foods, excess of critical nutrients and 'cosmetic' additives

Identikit of ultraprocessed foods, excess of critical nutrients and 'cosmetic' additives

A scientific study by the University of São Paulo (Cinnamon et al., 2023) identifies the excess of critical nutrients and/or the presence of 'cosmetic' additives as a guiding criterion for identifying ultra-processed foods, the consumption of which is associated with the greatest risks of non-communicable diseases and premature mortality (1,2 ).

Excess critical nutrients and 'cosmetic' additives

Researchers examined the nutritional table and the list of ingredients on the label of 9851 packaged food products, including beverages, in supermarkets in São Paulo and Salvador de Bahia (Brazil), to identify those characterized by:

– excess of critical nutrients, or fats (also hydrogenated), sugars and salt, according to the parameters indicated by PAHO (Pan American Health Organization, or OPS, Pan American Health Organization), the WHO regional agency in the Americas,

– 'cosmetic' additives, i.e. molecules added not to guarantee the wholesomeness of the product but to make it more 'attractive'. Flavourings, flavor enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, antifoaming agents, bulking agents, carbonates, foaming agents, gelling agents and glazing agents.

Identikit of ultraprocessed foods

The combined search of these two parameters has proved to be very effective in identifying ultra-processed foods and beverages. Which are precisely characterized by unbalanced nutritional profiles and/or the presence of 'cosmetic' additives, and it is thus possible, for example, to intercept products such as beverages and, too ('zero'The'sugar free'), loaded with harmful sweeteners (aspartame (in primis)), which would escape the search. (3)

The nearly 10 products object of study were then subjected to classification according to the NOVA system, according to the degree of industrial processing. This system - developed precisely at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) by Carlos Monteiro's team - distinguishes foods into four groups, from natural and unprocessed foods to ultra-processed foods and which is adopted to develop dietary recommendations as part of national policies of public health. (4)

NOVA system, cosmetic additives in ultraprocessed foods

The results

The analysis shows that 98,8% of ultraprocessed foods (NOVA group 4) contain one or more cosmetic additives or have some critical nutrient in excess.

Some categories foods are particularly extraneous to a balanced diet:

1) critical nutrients. 97,1% of ultraprocessed and 90,9% of processed foods have one or more nutrients of concern in excess. Nutritional imbalance is most common in

– margarine, cakes, chocolate and ice cream (100%), (5)

– sweet biscuits (99,7%) and cured meats and sausages (99,5%),

– sugary drinks (87,4%), (6)

2) 'cosmetic' additives. 82,1% of ultraprocessed products contain at least one 'cosmetic' additive. They are almost always found in chocolates (98,3% of the sample), milk-based drinks (96%), sweet cakes and pies (95,5%), carbonated drinks (95,2%) and margarine (94,3% of the sample). %).

Among processed foods, processed culinary ingredients (animal fats) and unprocessed or minimally processed foods are 3,7%, 0,4%, and 5,1%, respectively. With regard to this last figure, it should be emphasized that in the Brazilian sampling, as much as 38,2% of 'pasta' (minimally processed food) contains 'cosmetic' additives. This result is valid for ready-made pastas (such as lasagna, cannelloni etc.) but evidently it does not concern Italian dried pasta (whose recipe strictly includes only durum wheat semolina and water),

3) flavorings and dyes. They were detected in 71,4% of ultraprocessed foods, ranging from 95,2% of carbonated drinks to 22,6% of packaged bread.

The couple that blows up

The coexistence of the two factors – excess nutrients and 'cosmetic' additives – concerns:

– 100% of sweet and savory biscuits, margarine, sweet cakes and tarts, chocolate, dairy products and ice cream,

– 99,7% of cured meats and sausages,

– 99% of carbonated drinks,

– 97,7% of ready meals, pizza, lasagna,

– 97,2% of pastry,

– and 96,3% of other sugary drinks.


'According to our results, the strategy of identifying products with cosmetic additives combined with excessive amounts of critical nutrients appears to be helpful in correctly classifying UPF. 

If the FoPNL (label on front of package, ed) Brazilian used a suitable nutritional profile model and included information on cosmetic additives, it could help people make healthier food choices by identifying almost all UPF', the researchers conclude.

In the Old Continent meanwhile, 9 countries voluntarily apply a very effective nutritional information system on the front of the label, NutriScore, whose updated algorithm considers both nutritional profiles and some 'cosmetic' additives such as synthetic sweeteners. (7)

Marta Strinati

On the cover Professor Carlos Monteiro, Faculdade de Saúde Pública, Universidade de São Paulo (NUPENS/USP), creator of the NOVA food classification system. Read more about https://www.fsp.usp.br/nupens/a-classificacao-nova/


(1) Canella, DS, Pereira Montera, Vd, Oliveira, N. et al. Food additives and OPS nutritional profile model as elements contributing to the identification of ultra-processed food products. Sci rep 13, 13698 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-40650-3 

(2) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Ultraprocessed foods, disease and premature mortality. I study in Italy. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(3) Marta Strinati. Aspartame and health risks, brief scientific review. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(4) Dario Dongo, Marta Singed. NOVA classification, natural and ultra-processed foods. Friends and enemies of health. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade) One

(5) Marta Strinati. Ice creams, 19 bar types in comparison. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(6) Marta Strinati. Soft drinks and obesity in adolescents, the study in 107 countries. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(7) Dario Dongo. NutriScore, the tools for calculating the nutritional profiles of food and beverages. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

Marta Strinati
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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".

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