“Ultra-processed foods” and their impact on your health

In the era of health consciousness, “ultra-processed foods” are under intense scrutiny for their alleged links to a plethora of health issues. Despite lacking a universal definition, these foods dominate American diets. While food giants pivot towards healthier options, they simultaneously lobby against the negative narrative. Yet, at industry events, they proudly showcase their processed creations as culinary innovations. Amidst this debate, the Consumer Brands Association advocates for a reconsideration, portraying processed foods as facilitators of cherished moments.

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By Deena Shanker

If you’ve been paying even a little attention to health news recently, you’ve likely seen the words “ultra-processed foods” in headlines, blamed for everything from depression to diabetes to early death. Last year the book Ultra-Processed People, a tour through the effects of a factory-bred diet by BBC broadcaster Chris van Tulleken, was widely lauded in reviews by virtually every mainstream news outlet. On a panel in the early fall, renowned food scholar, molecular biologist and author Marion Nestle said the number of studies connecting ultra-processed foods to negative health outcomes had passed the 1,600 mark.

The term, as critics love to point out, is not universally defined, and not all processed foods are equally bad for you. Still, it describes about three-quarters of the American food supply. While it refers broadly to any food made mostly of industrial ingredients that themselves are already highly processed (think pea protein isolate or methylcellulose), some like to define it as foods made with ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen. I tend to subscribe to a theory articulated by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

The food industry has taken a multipronged approach to combat the backlash. On one hand, companies have been slowly bending to the ongoing consumer demands for healthier foods—simplifying products, shortening ingredients and using phrases like “Better for you” to describe a subset of their offerings. (For the record, a shortened ingredients list doesn’t by any means guarantee that a food is not ultra-processed. But it looks healthier.) With US consumers now buying less in supermarkets—a confluence of trends including inflation, reduced food stamp benefits and maybe even the Ozempic effect—the shift for food companies to once again be in the business of real food seems nothing short of urgent.

At the same time they’re lobbying the federal government to view all this anti-processed food research with caution, the Wall Street Journal reported in January, and they’re saying it’s actually the processing that makes their food so vital to American life. They’ve also been outright dismissive of the term. “I try to stay away from buzzwords,” Jeff Harmening, chief executive officer of General Mills Inc., said last summer at an event when asked about the term. Mark Smucker, the fifth-generation CEO of JM Smucker Co., also derided it as a “buzzword” in an interview with Bloomberg News a little more than a week later. A few months after that, his company said it would acquire Hostess Brands, maker of Twinkies. “I don’t like the word ultra-processed, and I don’t believe in it,” PepsiCo Inc. CEO Ramon Laguarta said at the World Economic Forum in January, right after declaring his commitment to “food systems transformation.”

Transformation was not exactly the vibe at a Boca Raton, Florida, luxury beachside resort in February, where the country’s biggest makers of packaged foods told Wall Street investors about their growth plans for the coming year. Company after company at the annual Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference said it wants to make more junk food more available to more people more often. The business-casual crowd started the day at sponsored breakfasts that offered dozens of kinds of cereal and between presentations sat in a coffee lounge where the tables were covered with packaged cupcakes. At one particularly memorable Mondelez International Inc.-sponsored snack break, they followed tradition and swarmed a massive pile of Cadbury Eggs and Lu Le Pims biscuits.

From the stage, executives unveiled ultra-processed creations, practically suggesting they become part of the new food pyramid. “We think our products belong (and we’re seeing that already) in home—both as side dishes but also as ingredients in the meal,” Laguarta said onstage, next to a slide showing Doritos and Tostitos.

Expanding into new “occasions” was the theme of the conference. PepsiCo, the largest retail food company in the country with more than $29 billion in US food sales alone, wants to do so by putting Doritos on the dinner table. Cereal, which has been falling out of favor for more than a decade as Americans opt for yogurts, bars, fast-food breakfast sandwiches or sometimes nothing at all, shouldn’t be confined to the morning, said Gary Pilnick, CEO of cereal company WK Kellogg Co. Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes are perfectly sensible as dinner or on-the-go snacks, now packaged in convenient single-serving bags, he said.

Snacking, after all, has been one of the few bright spots for the struggling industry, leading food companies to race to fill every moment of the day with their “innovations”—more junk. And it appears to be working. Mondelez’s 2023 State of Snacking report noted an increase in snacks replacing actual meals. All of this grazing on salt, sugar and fat added about $15 billion to the company’s market capitalization from the end of 2020 to the end of 2023.

Which is why the Consumer Brands Association is urging people to reconsider processed foods as less of an enemy and more of a gift. “Processing gives us that time back that we can use to create new memories,” wrote David Chavern, CEO of the CBA, the Big Food interest group that represents all of these companies, in an op-ed last winter. Apparently, he meant memories created over a bag of chips and some Oreos shared at the dinner table.

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