The compelling case against ultra-processed foods

Industry opposition to health regulations is being undermined by studies that demonstrate a link between junk food consumption and serious illness. Nick Hughes report.

“Breath-taking and insulting”: that was the incredulous response of the Food and Drink Federation’s chief operating officer Tim Rycroft to the UK government’s recent confirmation of a ban on volume junk food offers such as ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘3 for 2’.

It’s rare for a trade body to share its unabashed distain for a policy announcement quite so publicly – such language is usually confined to dusty Whitehall meeting rooms – but as with many industry organisations the FDF appears at the end of its tether with a government that is doing everything in its power to tarnish the Conservative’s proud reputation as the party of business.

The focus of Rycroft’s ire was the launch of a technical consultation on the details of the promotions ban – due to come into force in April 2022 – at a time when businesses are focused on the dual challenges of responding to the coronavirus pandemic and transitioning to new EU trading arrangements.

He has a point. The problem for the FDF and the food manufacturing giants it represents however is that beyond the circumstantial challenges businesses are facing, tried and tested arguments against imposing tougher health regulations on the food sector are increasingly on shaky ground. The latest kicker is a UK study published this month that links consumption of ultra-processed foods with a heightened risk of type-2 diabetes.

Rycroft went on to argue the promotions ban (which will also see free refills of sugary drinks outlawed) risked hindering progress with voluntary reformulation if it was to prevent manufacturers from promoting reformulated, healthier options to shoppers.

Yet evidence suggests the opposite is true. While industry-wide progress on voluntary reformulation is pitifully poor, the soft drinks industry levy has stimulated a wave of innovation and reformulation (as well as a shift in marketing focus) to push products below the levy threshold. In what experts have called a “historic change”, sales of sugar-free and low-sugar drinks have boomed and those of full sugar versions have shrunk.

The new UK study, meanwhile, appears to kick into touch another favourite industry aphorism: that junk foods are fine to eat in moderation since there is no such thing as a bad food just a bad diet. On the contrary, research published in the Clinical Nutrition journal suggests that some products do indeed fall into the ‘bad’ category, specifically those that undergo a high level of processing – so-called ultra-processed foods like sweet or savoury packaged snacks or cereals.

Researchers found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods was associated with a clinically important increased risk of type-2 diabetes leading them to conclude that “identifying and implementing effective public health actions to reduce ultra-processed food consumption in the UK and globally are urgently required”.

At this point you might be wondering: what are ultra-processed foods? The term is defined in the NOVA classification – a system of grades from one to four that compares the degree of processing of food and drink products. It ranges from unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fruits and eggs in grade one to ultra-processed foods like chicken (or vegan) nuggets and pre-prepared frozen dishes in group four. These are distinguished from other foods both by the use of non-domestic processes like hydrogenation, extrusion and moulding, and by the fact the final product contains little if any intact group one food.

The new findings follow a high-profile French study from 2018, published in the British Medical Journal, which found a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase in cancer risk of greater than 10%.

Although the authors said further research was needed to better understand associations between consumption of these foods and negative health outcomes, some governments have already formed their own conclusions. Brazil's dietary guidelines for example recommend avoiding ultra-processed foods altogether, while France has a policy goal to reduce their consumption by 20% by 2022.

UK policy makers have yet to single out ultra-processed foods for blanket avoidance. But that will surely change if evidence continues to emerge that such products are indeed inherently bad for us regardless of the ‘good’ bits that might be in them, thereby ending the current scenario where a kids’ cereal product chock-full of sugar is free to promote the benefits of its high-fibre content.

With bans on online marketing to children and calorie labelling already in the pipeline, the UK government has shown itself willing to deviate from traditional Conservative values and set firm rules for how food is marketed and sold.

As the case against ultra-processed foods becomes ever more compelling, it’s a position from which future governments seem unlikely to beat a retreat.

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