Government has a responsibility to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods available in the UK
Just because something is labelled “low-fat” does not mean it is healthy, writes Baroness Bennett. | PA Images
We have to ask whether companies should be allowed to produce, sell and promote such hazardous substances?
In May, I asked the government about the percentage of ultra-processed foods being included in parcels for those being shielded against Covid-19, reflecting complaints and concerns I’d heard from multiple sources.
The response I got, showed either that the government's disdain for, and ignorance of, experts, runs deep, or that it simply hasn’t caught up with the last couple of years of research and policy development around the world.
There is “no universally agreed description for ultra-processed foods,” the answer from Lord Gardiner of Kimble read.
That would come as news to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is using the NOVA system, developed by Brazilian researchers in 2009, as are most researchers and increasing numbers of governments around the world.
Brazil, France, Peru and Uruguay - and Wales – are using it in their food strategies and guidelines.
This is now an established, understood classification. It is even now coming under regular attack from defenders of our current food system, which might be taken as a measure of success.
So what are ultra-processed foods? “Formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready-to-consume hyper-palatable food and drink products using flavours, colours, emulsifiers and . . . other cosmetic additives.” They include savoury snacks, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared frozen dishes, and soft drinks.”
To quote the Pan American Health Organization, they “include substances also derived from foods but not used in home cooking, such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, protein isolates, and additives such as colors, flavors and flavor enhancers. Additives are used to imitate and enhance the sensory qualities of natural foods or to disguise unattractive qualities of the final product”.
This is distinguished in the system from “processed foods”, often traditional methods of essentially cooking and preserving, that in the words of one health charity “have been altered, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health”.
We know ultra-processed food when we see it – and statistically, we see it often, for an astonishing 57% of calories in the British diet come from ultra-processed food.
It is a major factor in 61% of all Britons, and more than 80% of adolescents, eating more than the recommended free sugars in their diet. No wonder we have an obesity crisis and a diabetes epidemic.
It is an instinctive, “common sense” reaction, in that term so beloved by Boris Johnson, to recognise that this is bad for our health.
These are empty calories, sweet-tooth-encouraging, industrial products unlike the food that our digestive systems and microbiomes have evolved to manage over hundreds of thousands of years.
They don’t satisfy. They encourage more consumption. That’s how they’re designed.
And they come in increasingly large packets – bulk sizes, with all too often encouragement to get “better value” by paying a little to get a lot more.
But this isn’t just common sense. There’s science to back this up.
From a US study published in 2019: “Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain”.
For French adults over the age of 45, “a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was statistically significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality”.
And from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Study, “a 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods being associated with a 18% increase in the prevalence of obesity in men and a 17% increase in women”.
We’ve seen over recent years huge amounts of campaigning over single elements of diet – sugars, or fats, and a great deal of consumer confusion over what is “healthy” – not helped all too often by confusing labelling.
No, just because something is labelled “low-fat” does not mean it is healthy, but many advertising pounds have gone into delivering that inaccurate message.
Focusing on ultra-processed foods – and getting the message out to consumers – is something only the government can do.
The nation’s apple-growers don’t have the financial muscle to compete with multinational fruit juice drink companies.
And ultimately, we have to ask whether companies should be allowed to produce, sell and promote such hazardous substances?
These are issues that I hope will be raised in today’s oral question in the House of Lords. I’ve conveyed the contents of this article to the government and I look forward to hearing its response.
Baroness Bennett is a Green Party Member of the House of Lords.