Deny, Denounce, Delay: The Battle Over the Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods

A shopping cart next to a store shelf in a supermarket

When Brazilian food scientist Carlos Monteiro coined the term ultra-processed foods 15 years ago, he created what he calls a new paradigm for assessing the impact of diet on health.

Monteiro had noticed that although Brazilian households were spending less on sugar and oil, obesity rates were rising. The paradox can be explained by the increased consumption of foods that have undergone high levels of processing, such as the addition of preservatives and flavorings or the removal or addition of nutrients.

But health authorities and food companies resisted the link, Monteiro tells the FT. [These are] people who spent their whole lives thinking that the only connection between diet and health is the nutrient content of foods…Food is more than nutrients.

The Monteiros Nova food classification system assessed not only the nutritional content of foods, but also the processes they undergo before they reach our plates. The system laid the foundation for two decades of scientific research linking the consumption of UPFs to obesity, cancer and diabetes.

UPFs studies show that these processes create food from snack bars to breakfast cereals to ready meals that encourage overeating but can leave the eater undernourished. For example, a recipe may contain a level of carbohydrates and fat that triggers the brain’s reward system, meaning you need to consume more to maintain the pleasure of eating it.

In 2019, American metabolic scientist Kevin Hall conducted a randomized study comparing people who ate a raw diet with those who followed a UPF diet for two weeks. Hall found that subjects who ate an ultra-processed diet consumed about 500 more calories per day, more fat and carbohydrates, less protein, and gained weight.

Growing concern about the health impact of UPFs has reframed the debate about nutrition and public health, giving rise to books, policy campaigns and academic papers. It also presents the most concrete challenge to the food industry’s business model, for which UPFs are extremely profitable.

The industry has responded with a ferocious campaign against the regulation. In part, she has used the same lobbying playbook as her fight against labeling and taxing high-calorie junk foods: big spending to influence policymakers.

FT analysis of US lobbying data by the non-profit Open Secrets found that food and soft drinks companies spent $106 million on lobbying in 2023, almost twice as much as the tobacco and alcohol industries combined. Spending in recent years was 21 percent higher than in 2020, with the increase largely driven by lobbying related to food processing as well as sugar.

In an echo of tactics used by cigarette companies, the food industry has also tried to avoid regulation by casting doubt on the research of scientists like Monteiro.

The strategy I see the food industry using is denial, denunciation and delay, says Barry Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London and a consultant to companies on the multisensory experience of food and drink.

So far the strategy has been successful. Only a handful of countries, including Belgium, Israel and Brazil, currently refer to UPFs in their dietary guidelines. But as the weight of evidence for UPFs grows, public health experts say the only question now is how, if at all, it translates into regulations.

There is scientific agreement about the science, says Jean Adams, professor of dietary public health in the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. It’s how we interpret it to make a policy that people aren’t sure about.

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