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Lack of professional consensus hinders public health communications about processed foods

by European Food Information Council

ultra-processed foods

Research suggests that food scientific experts and stakeholders need to quickly reach a consensus when it comes to processed foods to benefit consumers and improve health outcomes.


Unfortunately, as this article explains, even professionals and researchers still seem to be confused when it comes to 'processed foods', and their implications for nutrition and health. 

This helps to explain why both public health advice and policy - as well as clinical practice - still appears to be failing so badly in providing clear, evidence-based advice on 'healthy eating' that even the most motivated members of the general public can actually understand and follow.

Of course, it is obviously very good news for the ultra-processed food industry - which spends huge amounts of time and money (clearly very fruitfully) in order to keep this kind of confusion going.

But it is very bad news for anyone wanting to see a reversal of the ever-increasing burden of diet-induced ill health - both physical and mental - which has already become unaffordable in most developed as well as developing countries worldwide.

As this article acknowledges: "Perceived conflicts of interest and different areas of expertise within this broad topic may be why clear communications about processed foods are hard to come by". 

Indeed.  There really are few other explanations or excuses by now.

'Processed' and 'Ultra-Processed' foods - a key difference

Anyone who does want to understand should start by avoiding the deliberately vague term 'processed foods' (which includes minimally processed but highly nutritious traditional 'real' foods like cheese, yogurt, or even butter) - as the real problem lies with 'ultra-processed foods'.

Putting it bluntly, 'ultra-processed foods' are essentially 'fake foods' - manufactured from highly refined, industrially produced chemical ingredients - most of which would not be found in any traditional home kitchen. 

Some of these ingredients (like refined white flour, high-fructose corn syrup, or so-called 'vegetable oils' - which usually means highly refined, industrially produced 'seed oils' that played no part in any traditional, pre-industrial diets) may have been derived from what were originally natural foodstuffs (such as wheat, corn, or soybeans). But many have little or no nutritional value beyond the calories they contain - because high degrees of industrial processing have left them depleted of both essential nutrients and dietary fibre. What's more, extreme processing can sometimes create toxic substances (such as the trans fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, or 'advanced glycation end-products' - created when sugars are combined with proteins or fats at very high temperatures). 

Other ingredients, however, are purely synthetic chemicals.  And one key characteristic of ultra-processed foods is the presence of artificial chemical additives - used as colourings, flavourings, emulsifiers or other 'texture-modifying agents' (to improve their palatability and appeal to consumers), and some as preservatives (to improve shelf-life). Obviously, some additives are fully justifiable for food safety reasons - but this doesn't include the many additives used purely for cosmetic reasons - including Artificial Food Colourings (which controlled trials have shown can have harmful effects on children's mood and behaviour).

Ultra-processed foods are clearly enough defined by the 'NOVA' classfication - which has already revolutionised the study of nutrition in relation to health and disease, by emphasising the type and degree of processing to which foods have been subjected. See:

Of course, no classification system is perfect - but an abundance of research using the NOVA system has already firmly linked higher consumption of these kinds of 'fake' foods and drinks to increased risks for almost every one of the 'non-communicable diseases' that have been undermining physical health for decades already - including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and most forms of allergies and immune disorders. 

Oddly enough, diets high in ultra-processed foods also appear to raise risks for most developmental and mental health conditions too - including ADHD, depression, eating disorders and dementia.

No doubt the NOVA classification can and will be updated and improved upon over time, but the findings from its use already provide a very sound basis both for further research, and for health professionals to use for practical guidance.

The book 'Metabolical' by Professor Robert Lustig is also highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the multiple basic mechanisms by which ultra-processed foods contribute to almost all forms of ill-health and disease.

For the underlying research please see:

See also:

29/06/2022 - Medical Xpress

Food, nutrition and health experts don't always agree on terms and concepts surrounding processed foods, according to new research from the University of Surrey.

The research, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, suggests that food scientific experts and stakeholders need to quickly reach a consensus when it comes to processed foods to benefit consumers and improve health outcomes.

The research highlighted the ambiguity and confusion surrounding terms such as "processing," ultra-processed," and even "healthy" foods.

Christina Sadler, a postgraduate researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Surrey and Senior Manager at the European Food Information Council, said:

"There is agreement that food processing can be part of the solution to provide enough food for the population's nutritional needs and reduce the environmental impact on the planet, but confusion still exists among experts on what role it should play in the food system.

"A lack of consensus about the classification of food processing and processed food may lead to conflicting information and hinder progress towards these goals. That is why we are recommending further collaboration between all those with a professional interest in food, particularly if they want to be seen as trustworthy sources when offering advice to the wider public."

"We need to quickly identify the root issues, while viewing food processing as part of a complex food system, to understand how processing can be optimized towards the goal of equitable, safe, sustainable, and healthy diets."

The research also identified a lack of consensus about the scope of processing, the degree of processing and the aspects used to evaluate the healthiness of processed foods.

Perceived conflicts of interest and different areas of expertise within this broad topic may be why clear communications about processed foods are hard to come by and why it is difficult to frame the risks and benefits of food processing.