Why should we care about ultra-processed foods and our health
In an extraordinary documentary 'What are we feeding our kids?' on BBC One, Dr Chris van Tulleken looked at the UK’s addiction to ultra-processed foods, highlighting their prevalence in the national diet and the threat these foods pose to children’s health.
This is an issue we have been raising for the past six months. Our Ultra-Processed Food report in 2020 called for a policy response from Government, geared towards rebalancing the national diet.
As was highlighted in the documentary, something has gone seriously wrong with the way we eat. In one recent study, the UK was found to consume the highest proportion of ultra-processed foods in Europe (Monteiro et al., 2017). Whilst some may argue that Dr Chris’s personal ‘experiment’ is of limited value as scientific evidence, it shines a colourful spotlight on an issue that should command more public and government attention – the effects these foods have on his health mirror experiences across the general population.
The key takeaway for many viewers will be that ultra-processed food is bad for us. Whilst this may be a reasonable conclusion to draw from the documentary, the more nuanced conclusion is that we need to rebalance our diets. Too much of what we consume is ultra-processed food, not enough is natural, fresh, minimally processed. On average in the UK, more than 50% of the calories we consume are eaten as ultra-processed foods. That figure rises to 80% for one out of every five adults. Many children are consuming a diet comprised of more than 60% ultra-processed foods, with fresh fruit and veg too rarely consumed.
While processed foods (of the less ‘ultra’ variety) can be both healthy and convenient, something has clearly gone awry in the overall pattern of our diet. This isn’t about demonising the packet of crisps accompanying a sandwich at lunch, or healthy processed foods more generally – it’s more about making sure our diets, on the whole, are more balanced, with ultra-processed foods making up only a small fraction of our consumption.
It’s not all about sugar, salt and fat.
The association between ultra-processed foods and ill health has been firmly established, with increased consumption associated with overweight, obesity, cancer, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, depression, and all-cause mortality. As Dr Chris explains, this association appears to be driven by factors beyond the nutritive content of these foods. In other words, it’s not only that ultra-processed foods are high in salt, sugar and fat – though they often are. An emerging body of evidence suggests they can undermine our health in unexpected ways, including by diminishing the gut microbiome, and perhaps by disrupting the endocrine system and appetite pathways in the brain, prompting us to overeat. The emerging science paints an unsettling picture.
Young children are of particular concern.
Children are consuming too many ultra-processed foods, and this includes infants and babies. The UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with eight in ten women stopping breastfeeding before they want to – and this is partly due to the influence of infant food marketing and advertisements for highly processed products. Several UK infant food companies persist in marketing ultra-processed infant food for babies who are less than six months of age, in contravention of the World Health Organization Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. This needs to stop.
Excessive consumption of highly processed foods can shape our eating behaviours, as well as our health. Public health guidance encourages infants and young children to be offered a range of food textures and flavours. Many processed foods targeted at infants and children can be lacking in texture and provide a predominance of sweet flavours that bear little resemblance to the natural flavours of fruits and vegetables. This can lead to overeating and a loss of recognition of the food being eaten, inhibiting the learning of healthy eating behaviours and the development of a grown-up palate.
Food education programmes such as Food for Life and Taste Ed which reconnect children with real food have a critical role to play in addressing the damaging influence of ultra-processed foods. Increased uptake of these initiatives should be supported by the Government and championed by the National Food Strategy.
This is a systemic issue – Government must act.
Who is the bad guy in all this? Is it the retailers, the food manufacturers, the advertising agencies? It’s a little more complicated than that, with culpability spread across the system. Overconsumption of ultra-processed foods is being driven by forces across the supply chain, from the expectation of convenience and a ‘cheap food’ paradigm, to the imbalance in marketing and advertisement spend on ultra-processed versus fresh produce. Given that this is a systemic and national challenge, a response is needed from national policymakers.
The government should follow the example of the French Government, where a percentage reduction target for ultra-processed foods has been introduced in their public health strategy. The strategy sets out two ambitions
- Halt the growth in the consumption of ultra-processed products (according to the NOVA classification) and reduce the consumption of these products by 20% over the period between 2018 and 2021.
- Increase the consumption of organic products in the population so that 100% of the population consume at least 20% of their fruit consumption and vegetables, cereal products and legumes from organic products per week.
The upcoming National Food Strategy should emulate this ambition – aiming for a percentage reduction in ultra-processed food consumption across the UK, backed by measures to support change throughout the food system, including increased consumption of organic and agroecological produce. The health of our soils, wildlife, climate and nature are intrinsically linked to human health. A thriving nature-friendly farming system producing nutrient-dense fresh foods should be the priority. As Dr Chris reveals, our addiction to ultra-processed foods might be the health challenge of the decade – UK citizens, and children especially, deserve better.