Unhealthy diets are a leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases and negatively impact environmental sustainability. Policy actions recommended to address dietary risk factors, such as restrictions on marketing and front-of-pack labelling, are informed by nutrition classification schemes (NCSs). Ultra-processed foods are associated with adverse population and planetary health outcomes, yet the concept is rarely incorporated in nutrition classification schemes for policy actions. This study aims to develop a novel food processing-based nutrition classification scheme for guiding policy actions. A secondary aim is to validate the scheme by classifying food and beverage items in the Australian food supply (face validity) and comparing them to the classifications of existing NCSs (convergent validity). Two versions of a model were developed, classifying foods and beverages in two steps, first using the NOVA classification system and secondly by applying upper thresholds for added free sugars and sodium, producing a binary output of either healthy or unhealthy. All food and beverage items (n = 7,322) in a dataset combining the Australian Food Composition Database (AUSNUT 2011–2013) and Mintel’s Global New Product Database (2014–2019) were classified using the two models. The same dataset was also classified by the Health Star Rating system (HSR), The Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs), The Pan American Health Organization’s Nutrient Profile Model (PAHO NPM), and the NOVA classification scheme, and pairwise agreement between all NCSs and the two models was determined (using Cohen’s Kappa coefficient). A higher proportion of food categories consistent with dietary patterns that are associated with positive health outcomes, such and fruits, vegetables, and eggs were classified as healthy. And the clear majority of food categories consistent with dietary patterns associated with adverse health outcomes, such as confectionery, snack foods, and convenience foods were classified as unhealthy. The two versions of the model showed substantial agreement with NOVA and the PAHO NPM, fair agreement with the ADGs and slight to moderate agreement with the HSR system. A model NCS combining level of processing and nutrient criteria presents a valid alternative to existing methods to classify the health potential of individual foods for policy purposes.
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