Ultra-processed foods need tobacco-like warnings, says scientist

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By Creative Media News

  • UPFs displacing healthy diets globally
  • Linked to chronic diseases, obesity, diabetes
  • Advocates for tobacco-style warnings on UPFs

According to the nutritional scientist who originated the term, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are displacing healthy diets “all over the world” despite mounting evidence of the harms they cause and should be labelled with tobacco-style warnings.

At this week’s International Congress on Obesity, Prof. Carlos Monteiro from the University of São Paulo will emphasize the growing risk of UPFs to children and adults.

Monteiro, speaking ahead of a symposium in São Paulo, stated that while UPFs are becoming more prevalent in global diets, they pose a health danger by raising the risk of chronic diseases.

“UPFs are displacing healthier, less processed foods worldwide while degrading diet quality due to their various hazardous properties. Together, these items are fueling the obesity epidemic and other diet-related chronic disorders like diabetes.”

The stern warning comes as global consumption of UPFs rises, including cereals, protein bars, fizzy drinks, ready meals, and fast food.

More than half of the average diet today includes ultra-processed foods in the United Kingdom and the United States. Some people, particularly those who are younger, poorer, or come from impoverished areas, consume up to 80% UPF.

In February, the world’s most extensive assessment of its sort discovered that UPFs were directly connected to 32 adverse health outcomes, including an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and premature death.

Monteiro and his colleagues coined the term “UPF” 15 years ago while developing the “Nova” food classification system. This evaluates not only nutritional content but also the processes food goes through before it is ingested.

The approach categorizes food and beverages into four categories: minimally processed, processed culinary components, processed food, and ultra-processed food.

Monteiro stated that he was now so concerned about the influence of UPF on human health that research and reviews were no longer adequate to warn the public about the health risks.

To reduce the risks of UPFs, public health programs similar to those used to combat tobacco use are required. Such advertisements would address the health risks associated with the consumption of UPFs.

Advertisements for UPFs should likewise be prohibited or severely restricted, and front-of-pack warnings like those found on cigarette packs should be implemented.

He will urge delegates to prohibit UPF sales in schools and health facilities and to heavily tax UPFs, with the proceeds going to fund fresh food subsidies.

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Monteiro will tell the conference that food conglomerates promoting UPFs understand that their products must be more convenient, economical, and tastier than freshly made meals to compete. He stated that these UPFs must be produced cheaply and used excessively to maximize profitability.

He will also make comparisons between UPF and tobacco businesses. Tobacco and UPFs both cause a variety of severe illnesses and premature death; both are manufactured by multinational corporations that invest the enormous profits they earn from their appealing/addictive products in aggressive marketing strategies and lobbying against regulation; and both are pathogenic (dangerous) by design, so reformulation is not an option.

Dr Hilda Mulrooney, a nutrition and health reader at London Metropolitan University, said equating UPF to smoking was overly simplistic.

There is no such thing as a safe cigarette, even secondhand, so banning it is pretty simple because the health case is obvious.

However, we require various nutrients, including fat, sugar, and salt, which serve numerous purposes in foods – structural, shelf-life, and not simply taste, flavour, and hedonic qualities.

It is more challenging to reformulate certain types of meals to reduce them, and they are different from tobacco because we require food, but not in the quantities that most of us consume.

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