IFT Challenges UPF Debate: Health Risk or Food Innovation?

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a global organization with over 11,000 members from more than 90 countries, has been at the forefront of advancing food science and technology since 1939. This year, the organization is tackling one of the most contentious issues in nutrition today: the categorization and health implications of ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

UPFs, characterized by ingredients and processes not typically found in home kitchens—such as artificial colors, preservatives, and stabilizers—have been under intense scrutiny. Scientific journals have increasingly published studies linking UPFs to a range of health risks, including heart disease, stroke, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancers, and all-cause mortality. However, the debate is far from settled. Critics argue that the definition of “ultra-processed” remains ambiguous and that the widely used NOVA system for classifying foods does not account for nutritional value.

A Harvard study has highlighted the diversity within the UPF category, noting that many items considered ultra-processed can still be healthy. Similarly, an IFT white paper points out that conflating processing with poor nutrition has led to consumer confusion. The range of foods classified as UPFs—from lunch meats and sodas to breads, yogurts, and plant-based milks—complicates the issue further.

In an effort to clarify the confusion, IFT is convening a panel of experts at its annual event, IFT FIRST: Annual Event and Expo, in Chicago this July. The panel will explore recent advances in the characterization of UPFs, the impact of innovative ingredients and technologies on their quality and safety, consumer perceptions, and the influence of UPF consumption on nutrition and health. Researchers from academic institutions, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will participate.

Anna Rosales, IFT’s senior director of government affairs and nutrition, emphasized the diverse perspectives of the panelists. “From human-intervention research and dietary modeling to possible mechanisms that differentiate UPFs, our panel will discuss what we know now about UPFs and what we need to research further to better untangle the confusion and gain scientific consensus,” she said.

One of the speakers, Julie Hess, a research nutritionist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center at USDA ARS, is particularly focused on the intersection of recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and ultra-processed foods as defined by the NOVA system. Her lab recently published a proof-of-concept study suggesting that it is feasible to develop a menu that aligns with DGA recommendations while still including most of its calories from UPFs.

In addition to the UPF debate, IFT FIRST will also delve into the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in advancing food innovation. Monday’s keynote, “Revolutionizing Food Innovation Through AI,” will explore the collaboration between humans and machines in predictive analytics, precision engineering, biotechnology, and food product development. A Fireside Chat featuring Brightseed co-founder Jim Flatt and NotCo co-founder Karim Pichara will further discuss how AI can revolutionize food.

With cleaner eating becoming increasingly important amid rising rates of diabetes and obesity, another panel will outline how companies can leverage AI to improve formulations that connect ingredients, chemical and physical measurements, sensory evaluations, and consumer preferences. A session sponsored by ERP platform Infor will discuss how AI and product lifecycle management technologies can accelerate product development and enhance market responsiveness. Alianza Team will explore the role of machine learning and deep learning in refining lipid product design for the food industry.

Early arrivals to Chicago can participate in a two-day workshop on July 13-14, “Exploring Artificial Intelligence for Next-Level Food Innovation.” Rosales notes, “Whether you’re talking about AI, food as medicine, or sustainable agriculture, it has to come together collaboratively, and this is on full display at IFT FIRST. Food science is the middle sector of the food system that uniquely links farm to fork and is perfectly positioned to foster food system collaboration and innovation.”

IFT FIRST will take place from July 14–17, with an expected 17,000 attendees from over 70 countries. For more information or to register, visit iftfirst.org.

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