It’s concerning that a swathe of edible products are, in essence, synthetic; i.e. industrialised separation of plant and animal substances, plus undergoing chemical modification and often combined with inorganic chemicals, mostly from the petroleum industry.
What are these products? How do we identify them?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has developed the NOVA classification system for the products we eat. We’ve used the word ‘synthetic’ for the NOVA Group 4 products.*
For our 2020 scenarios work exploring how the UK could be better prepared for future food shocks, scarcities and shortages, we developed the infographic below. A summary of what NOVA Group 4 products are is summarised at the bottom LHS; note that a significant proportion of NOVA 4 products are the addictive drug-foods that do so much damage to human and planetary health.
It also has an account of David Rubenheimer and Stephen Spender’s Protein Leverage Hypothesis (PLH) (see also their book Eat like the animals). We’re grateful for their input to this highly compressed version of their unique synthesis of the appetites-protein- leverage-meets-ultra-high-processed scenario. In summary, nutrients, including protein, are expensive. So if you don’t enough money for a healthy diet, you have no option but to assuage your hunger with cheap, health-harming carbs.
* NOVA Group 4 products are sometimes referred to as ‘ultra-high processed, including by the UN FAO.
It’s not, however, term we think is useful (although we’ve used in in the infographic), hence the term ‘synthetic’ here — and notice we’ve used inverted commas to denote the word ‘food’. In our view, they should not be classified as ‘food’. ‘Edible’ perhaps . . .
An explanation as to why we think the term ‘ultra-processed’ is unhelpful is put forward in this post.