Multinational companies are “shaping” food systems on all levels to drive consumption of ultra-processed foods, and governments must intervene, according to a new report from the Global Food Research Program.
Called A Global Threat to Public Health, the fact sheet from the program at the University of North Carolina details how ultra-processed foods have been found responsible for depression, premature deaths and illness associated with obesity including cancer and heart disease.
It says these products, which largely did not exist until halfway through last century, have displaced nutritious meals, “causing significant nutritional, social, economic, and environmental damage”, and now make up 50 per cent of the calories consumed in the UK, US and Canada.
Ultra-processed foods are comprised of very low value ingredients and little or no whole food. They contain edible substances such as protein isolates and cosmetic additives such as flavours, colours and emulsifiers. The processing occurs over many steps and industries, aiming to create products that replace healthier food groups. They include packaged snacks, cookies, instant soups and noodles, ready-to-eat meals, sweets and soft drinks.
The report says, “Transnational food and beverage corporations leverage their massive market power to alter entire food systems to their benefit: They control the price, availability, nutritional quality, and desirability of their products.”
“Tweaking product formulations does nothing to address the problems”
The study said these foods are the fastest-growing segment of the global food supply and a major driver of diet-related, noncommunicable diseases worldwide.
Health policies should include taxes, front-of-package labelling, marketing restrictions, and protections for a nutritious school environment. Governments must take action to shift consumption back toward healthier diets.
While food companies offer to re-formulate ultra-processed brands, this will not suffice. Assembling the ingredients often uses intense processing methods, such as extrusion or deep-frying that are unhealthy.
Most ingredients used in the formulation of these foods are the result of intense food processing such the hydrogenation of oils, the making of protein isolates from whole foods, converting corn starch into high-fructose corn syrup.
The report says, “Tweaking product formulations to achieve a more appealing nutrition facts panel does nothing to address the problems of the hyper-palatability and addictive nature, content of harmful contiminants or displacement of healthier foods in the diet.”
The report also explains that reducing the consumption of harmful ultra-processed foods does not harm the economy or employment.