Last week’s post on a drink made out of cocoa pulp led to some GREAT questions; astute readers noted that the likes of Nestlé and Callebaut are developing and marketing “whole fruit chocolate”; bars which are made without added sugar but made with ‘unsweetened cacao pulp’. This is truly inspired marketing.
…But it’s a bit misleading too. Chocolate is more than the sum of its ingredients; it’s about the quality of the cocoa and way the bar is crafted (or, see below, ultra-processed).
And it is a great segue into another topical issue: The difference between ‘ultra-processed’ and ‘processed’ foods.
For a quick definition on what is meant by ultra-processed foods, and why this is so important, please see below. But just to whet your appetite (and encourage you to read on), here are a couple of observations:
- More than 50% of the calories consumed by people in the UK now come from ultra-processed foods.
- More than 80% of the ‘foods’ available in some convenience stores are now ultra-processed (including, of course, mass-produced chocolate and confectionery).
- More and more research links ultra-processing of foods to over-consumption, obesity and all sorts of health issues (see below for some really sobering studies in France, Brazil, the US and Australia).
Identifying ultra-processed foods is not always easy. Terms like “whole fruit chocolate” and “unsweetened cocoa pulp” are intentionally obscure. But these “whole fruit chocolates” are still ultra-processed and mass-produced chocolate sweetened with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” still have LOTS of sugar.
Please read on for a great framework and set of tools to differentiate between “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods (including craft versus mass-produced chocolate).
History and Definitions of Ultra-Processed Foods
The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is based on more than a decade of work by Dr Carlos Monteiro and his team at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. After seeing that huge spikes in Brazilian consumption of fast foods, sodas, etc., were accompanied by an explosion of obesity across all ages, he suggested that:
…”the issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing (in these fast foods and sodas)”, and; “…from the point of view of human health, at present, the most salient division of food and drinks is in terms of their type, degree, and purpose of processing”.
And Dr Monteiro, along with a team of epidemiologists and nutritionists all over the globe, has developed an elegant four-part classification of foods to describe this trend. It’s generally referred to as NOVA (as in new star), and it’s a great framework to think about what we purchase and eat. And it’s also very helpful in separating craft from mainstream chocolate.
See below for more details and links to some great podcasts on NOVA. But here is a quick summary of the four groups they classify:
Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods and drinks:
- Examples: fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish and milk.
- Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients.
- Most of this ‘minimal processing’ can be done at home.
Group two: Processed culinary ingredients:
- Examples: olive oil, butter, sugar, salt and vinegar.
- These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with the foods in group one.
- Most kitchens contain these ingredients, and most people’s grandmothers would recognise them!
Group three: Processed foods:
- Examples: homemade bread (and biscuits), smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread, bacon, salted nuts, poached fruit, beer and CRAFT CHOCOLATE.
- The main purpose of the processing is to create a more exciting product and/or extend a food’s life.
- Again, most kitchens contain the ‘kit’ (ovens, jars, etc.), foods (from group one) and ingredients (from group two) to make these ‘processed’ foods.
Group four: Ultra-processed foods:
- Examples: Industrialised bread (and biscuits, cakes, etc.), pre-packaged meals (ready meals), breakfast cereals (including most granolas), reconstituted meat products (like industrial sausages), soft drinks, confectionery and MASS-PRODUCED CHOCOLATE.
- The critical differences are:
- The way these foods are processed: Various industrial processes such as hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding and preprocessing via frying and baking. You can’t do this sort of processing at home (even if you have a sous vide, air fryer or pressure cooker).
- The number and type of ingredients used and added aren’t ones that many people will have at home (we all have sugar and salt, but very few of us will have the likes of palm oil, trans-fats, hydrogenated fats, invert sugar, maltodextrin, insoluble fibre, PGPR, modified starches, etc.).
- The focus is on “bliss point” tastes, rather than ‘savouring the flavour’. Once you pop, you can’t stop with ultra-processed foods (and drinks; how else can you consume 10+ teaspoons of sugar other than in a can of soft drink).
So as Dr Monteiro urges, we need to look beyond the simple nutritional components (i.e. how many calories, how much protein, how much salt, sugar etc.) and the cheap prices (cheapness is all too often expensive, both environmentally and socially).
Why does this matter?
There is more and more evidence that diets containing A LOT of ultra-processed foods are really bad for people. Bottom line: It’s increasingly clear that consuming the same nutrients and calories via ultra-processed foods and drinks leads to weight gain, and a whole set of chronic, non-communicable conditions including diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases and more (see below for some of the studies on these).
Quite why ultra-processed foods have these consequences is still a matter for debate. Fast food companies argue it’s “correlation not causation”, but the studies and evidence is pretty incontrovertible
And there are some intriguing pointers as to the WHY.
- Ultra-processed foods encourage scoffing and eating faster as they optimise “bliss point” tastes, and they require less chewing than home cooked foods.
- Ultra-processed foods leave people feeling unsatisfied and wanting more, again because of the “bliss point” combination of sugar, salt and fat, for most of us “once you pop you can’t stop”.
- Ultra-processed foods play havoc with our gut and microbiome (see any of the research done by Tim Spector and the team at ZOE, or just watch ‘Supersize Me’).
Above and beyond this, more and more foodies and food geeks are looking beyond the nutrients in any food. The USDA and international research databases track about 150 nutritional components out of more than 25,000 biochemicals known to be in food. And ultra-processing food transforms and destroys many of these biochemicals.
Note: I’m not saying “all additives are bad”. Craft Truffles are GREAT, and adding nutrients, vitamins, specific minerals, etc. can be a good thing. And very often these are in ultra-processed foods. But these additives can also be added to home cooked (i.e. processed) meals.
How does this apply to chocolate?
Chocolate provides a classic example of the difference between ‘craft’ processes and ‘mass-produced’ ultra-processed confectionery.
Craft chocolate is a processed food (group 3):
- The ingredients are simple (cocoa beans, cocoa butter and sugar for dark bars, with milk powder for milk bars).
- Almost all the kit you need to make a craft chocolate bar exists in your kitchen (oven to roast, hairdryer to help winnow, table to temper on. And the melangeur to grind and conche is based on the spice/lentil grinder found in many Indian households). We (and definitely I) don’t have the skill to craft chocolate in our kitchens, but this was how the vast majority of makers started; ask Isobel and Karen from Dormouse; look at the early ‘kitchen’ of Omnom in their repurposed gas station; check out Plaq in Paris etc.
- It’s all about savouring, it’s all about extracting the flavour from the bean.
Mass-produced chocolate (and most confectionery) is largely ultra-processed (group 4):
- The ingredients list is full of stuff few of us can understand (PGPR!?), or have in our kitchen cupboards at home, (palm oil anyone?). And what are all those stabilisers, flavouring agents, E-numbers and the like?
- The processes for making mass-produced chocolate are very different to craft chocolate. And mass-produced chocolate involves machinery that definitely doesn’t exist in any normal home kitchen. For example, a craft chocolate maker will sort and roast the whole beans and then winnow (remove the shells). This optimises the flavour. By contrast, mass-produced chocolate production uses huge pressure (via large steamers) to remove the shell of the bean before it is roasted as this is more efficient. This saves money, but it harms flavour.
- Mass-produced chocolate adds taste to make up for these ‘efficiencies’ and to create a consistent experience. They do this by leveraging our ‘bliss point’ response to the combination of sugar, salt and fatty tastes. And these bliss point tastes encourage gorging and scoffing. Have you ever tried to wrap up an unfinished mass-produced chocolate bar or confectionery? You can’t! Contrast this with, for example, Pump Street bars that are very moreish, but their packaging enables and encourages you to save some chocolate for the next day.
Mass-produced chocolate companies are also BRILLIANT at marketing. “Whole Fruit Chocolate” anyone? Chocolate made with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” rather than “refined cane sugar”? Low GI coconut blossom sugar (…this one really needs to be put to rest).
As ever, thanks for your support (and please keep the feedback and comments coming! Get in touch here).
P.S. For more detailed information about ultra-processed food and human health, check out the following articles and podcasts: