July 13, 2024

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are displacing healthy diets “all over the world” despite mounting evidence of the risks they pose and should be sold with tobacco-style warnings, according to the nutrition scientist who first coined the term.

Prof Carlos Monteiro from the University of São Paulo will highlight the increasing danger that UPFs pose to children and adults at the International Congress on Obesity this week.

“UPFs are increasing their share in and dominance of global diets, despite the risk they pose to health in terms of increasing the risk of multiple chronic diseases,” Monteiro told the Guardian ahead of the conference in São Paulo.

“UPFs are displacing healthier, less processed foods around the world, and are also causing a decline in diet quality due to their various harmful properties. Together, these foods are driving the pandemic of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes.”

The stark warning comes amid rapidly rising global consumption of UPFs such as cereals, protein bars, fizzy drinks, ready meals and fast food.

In the UK and US, more than half of the average diet now consists of ultra-processed foods. For some, especially people who are younger, poorer or from disadvantaged areas, a diet consisting of as much as 80% UPF is typical.

In February, the world’s largest review of its kind found UPFs were directly linked to 32 harmful health effects, including a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health and early death.

Monteiro and his colleagues first used the phrase UPF 15 years ago when they designed the food classification system “Nova”. It assesses not only the nutritional content, but also the processes that food undergoes before it is digested.

The system places food and drink into four groups: minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods.

Monteiro told the Guardian that he is now so concerned about the impact that UPF has on human health that studies and reviews are no longer sufficient to warn the public of the health hazards.

“Public health campaigns like those against tobacco are needed to limit the dangers of UPFs,” he told the Guardian in an email. “Such campaigns will include the health hazards of consuming UPFs.

“Advertising for UPFs should also be banned or severely restricted, and front-of-pack warnings should be introduced similar to those used for cigarette packs.”

He will tell delegates: “Sales of UPFs in schools and health facilities should be banned, and there should be heavy taxation on UPFs, with the revenue generated used to subsidize fresh food.”

Monteiro will tell the conference that food giants marketing UPFs know that their products must be more convenient, more affordable and tastier than freshly prepared meals to be competitive. “To maximize profit, these UPFs must have lower production costs and be over-consumed,” he said.

He will also draw parallels between UPF and tobacco companies. “Both tobacco and UPFs cause numerous serious illnesses and premature deaths; both are produced by transnational corporations that invest the enormous profits they gain from their attractive/addictive products in aggressive marketing strategies and lobbying against regulation; and both are pathogenic (dangerous) by design, so reformulation is not a solution.”

However, Dr Hilda Mulrooney, a reader in nutrition and health at London Metropolitan University, said comparing UPF with tobacco was “very simplistic”.

“There is no such thing as a safe cigarette, not even second-hand, so banning it is relatively simple because the health case is very clear.

“However, we need a range of nutrients, including fat, sugar and salt, and they have multiple functions in food – structural, shelf life – not just taste and flavor and hedonic properties.

“It’s not that easy to reformulate some classes of foods to reduce them and it’s not the same as tobacco because we need food – just not in the quantities that most of us consume.”

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