Article image

Action needed to expose the dangers of ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are those that have been chemically or physically altered during production, usually using industrial processes. However, say the authors of a recent article published in the BMJ Global Health, these are not really foods and they deserve to be identified with a specific label warning the public of the dangers associated with consumption.

These foods can be recognized on the shelves because they are marketed as ready-to-eat, contain more than five ingredients and have a long shelf-life. Many are also high in salt, added sugar, and saturated fats. They are foods that cannot be made in the home kitchen because they have been transformed during the manufacturing process and by the addition of various flavorants, emulsifiers, colorants and preservatives. 

“The industrial processing, as well as the cocktail of additives, flavors, emulsifiers and colors they contain to give flavor and texture, make the final product hyperpalatable or more appealing and potentially addictive, which in turn leads to poor dietary patterns,” explain the study authors from the global health organization, Vital Strategies.

Many consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating ultra-processed foods, which have been associated with negative health consequences, such as a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and death. And with more than half the total calories consumed in high income countries coming from ultra-processed foods, the authors predict a health crisis unless more aggressive advertising and awareness campaigns are instituted by public health authorities.

The experts state that these foods are “among the most aggressively promoted and marketed products in the world,” with rapidly growing sales in low- and middle-income countries as well. This means that billions of people are likely to be at risk of developing serious health issues unless action is taken to educate and inform the public. 

Research conducted by the authors in Colombia and Brazil indicates that while people might recognize that these products are harmful, they also associate them with positive outcomes, such as satisfying cravings, being tasty and bringing joy. The authors suggest that this may be the result of “decades of persuasive marketing by the food industry.” 

They call for governments and public health organizations to respond with education and advertising programs that directly link these products to serious ill health. Just as labels on the front of tobacco products warn smokers of potential health risks, labels on ultra-processed foods would go a long way in informing consumers of the risks they take by using these products. 

“It’s time to invest in establishing the negative brand identity that ultra-processed foods and beverages deserve. We could start by taking lessons learnt from tobacco control to build public awareness and campaigns that reveal the true nature of these products and the looming threat to consumers’ health,” they write.

The success of tobacco control offers a useful lesson in how to tackle this major health threat, they say. It’s a shining example of “huge policy wins and strong public understanding of the consequences of consuming a dangerous product,” they explain. “Much of this success is a result of using tried and tested marketing techniques, coupled with a faithful adherence to the science of tobacco’s harms.” 

The authors conclude: “If we are to stave off the devastation to our food system and our health, governments, with the support of the global public health community, need to urgently implement effective strategies that lead to decreasing consumption of these unhealthy products and enable healthier choices.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day