Is America’s Ultra-Processed Diet That Bad? Big Food Fights Back

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Food industry rallies to defend processing; changes could ‘rock the world’ of manufacturers

By Jesse Newman – WSJ

Move over GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup. There is a new phrase making the food industry pucker: ultra-processed foods.

A battle is brewing over the latest term for many packaged food products that manufacturers fear could infiltrate U.S. food policy and scare off consumers.

Food-industry groups and makers of goods from ice cream to pasta sauce are stepping up lobbying, pushing back as the U.S. government probes the health effects of heavily processed food. It is a new front in a struggle that could reshape America’s approach to nutrition and threaten profits for companies behind foods throughout much of the supermarket.

Opposition to ultra-processed foods—your frozen pizza, potato chips and other mass-produced goods made with industrial ingredients and additives—is gaining steam worldwide. Scientists are still studying why diets high in ultra-processed foods have been tied to health problems, and any potential U.S. policies could be years away.

The foods are facing rising scrutiny as concerns grow over their outsize role in American diets. They are under review ahead of the next dietary guidelines, the every-five-years advice from regulators on what Americans should eat. Federal researchers are studying the foods, and lawmakers are holding hearings highlighting possible health risks.

Big food companies and their allies are marshaling a defense, with some seeking to forestall recommendations in the coming dietary guidelines. Industry groups and companies such as 

Unilever and Barilla have touted the benefits of processing to regulators, arguing that it has made food safe, convenient, accessible and affordable. 

Greater attention to processing marks a major new challenge for food makers. U.S. dietary advice for decades has focused largely on individual nutrients such as sugar, salt or saturated fat. By contrast, concerns over processing strike at the heart of how most packaged food is produced. 

“It is going to rock the world for the food industry,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University. “That’s never been a standard to which they’ve been held before.”

Fish sticks are considered Ultra processed

Behind the scenes, food-industry proponents have also begun pressing for more oversight of government-funded research on ultra-processed foods, according to industry lobbyists. Less processing, they say, could lead to more food waste, higher prices and problems for consumers who might struggle to store more fresh foods. 

Last summer, more than a dozen food, beverage and commodity groups called for an advisory committee that informs the dietary guidelines to consult food scientists on ultra-processed foods. They also aired concerns about the research the committee could consider, cautioning it against making strong recommendations on the foods.

The threat, food analysts said, is that the term “ultra-processed” becomes synonymous with unhealthy eating—similar to the way “gluten-free,” “no-high-fructose corn syrup” and “non-GMO” became markers for health despite pushback from companies in some cases. 

Food-industry groups and companies have critiqued existing definitions and classifications of ultra-processed foods. They say a focus on processing levels—from simple roasting or boiling to more industrial methods like extrusion—ignores foods’ nutrient content and could unintentionally lead to less consumption of desirable nutrients such as fiber or calcium. 

David Chavern, chief executive of the Consumer Brands Association, which represents major food manufacturers including 

Campbell Soup and  General Mills, said there is no consistent, science-based definition for ultra-processed foods and that the term unfairly demonized all packaged food. “It has infiltrated hashtags and trending topics, appearing in newsfeeds as a boogeyman set on undermining consumers’ autonomy to choose what best suits their dietary needs,” Chavern wrote in an opinion column in November.

Beyond a potential hit to grocery-store sales, food companies worry that potential government recommendations or policies over ultra-processed foods could have a broad impact. The dietary guidelines shape U.S. food programs and influence state and local health efforts, affecting which goods are available in schools and more.

“With ultra-processed foods, it’s not one or two items, or this line of macaroni and cheese. It’s 90% of the portfolio and counting,” said Nick Fereday, executive director of food and consumer trends for agricultural lender Rabobank.

Governments including Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Israel have told consumers to limit consumption of highly processed foods. Colombia’s government last year began taxing purchases of ultra-processed foods, and some food manufacturers in France have begun labeling their products to indicate their degree of processing.

Many food-industry groups, companies and consultants argue that a widely used Brazilian classification system is overly simplistic and unhelpful to consumers, lumping together packaged bread and infant formula in the same ultra-processed category as cookies and chicken nuggets. 

“Is lard now a health food because it’s a one-ingredient natural product?” said brand consultant Jeff Grogg. “Does it matter if there are 52 ingredients and some are synthetically produced if the finished product has 15 grams of fiber, 10 grams of protein, healthy fats and reasonable calories?” 

Tufts’ Mozaffarian said current approaches to ultra-processed foods aren’t perfect but that most of the foods are unhealthy, and the need for further tweaks isn’t an excuse for inaction.

“This is the reality of nutrition science: It’s complicated,” Mozaffarian said. “The science is advanced enough to start to take action to recommend to people to have less of these foods.”



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