Ultra-processed foods, the “disastrous diet” that manufacturers love

When Carlos Monteiro coined the term “ultra-processed foods” (UPF) fifteen years ago, the Brazilian nutrition researcher created what he calls a “new paradigm” to assess the effects of diet on health. He had noticed that obesity rates continued to rise in Brazil while sales of sugar and oil were declining. This paradox could be explained by an increased consumption of highly processed foods, for example by the addition of preservatives and flavorings, or by the removal or addition of nutrients.

But health authorities and the food industry continue to deny that there is any such link, Carlos Monteiro tells Financial Times.

“They spent their lives thinking that the only connection between health and nutrition was the nutrient content of foods… There is more to nutrition than nutrients.”

Nova, the food classification system (in four groups) developed (in 2009) by Carlos Monteiro, evaluates not only the nutritional value of foods, but also the transformation processes they undergo before reaching our plates. Nova laid the foundation for twenty years of scientific research establishing a link between the consumption of AUT and obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Eat more to get the same level of pleasure

Studies of TUEs show that processing creates foods – from candy bars to breakfast cereals to convenience foods – that encourage excessive consumption, which can go hand in hand with undernutrition. Such a recipe could, for example, contain levels of carbohydrates and lipids which activate the reward circuits in the brain, pushing the consumer to eat more to obtain the same level of pleasure.

In 2019, the American Kevin Halla metabolism researcher, conducted a randomized study comparing people on an unprocessed diet to people on ultra-processed foods for two weeks. The subjects on the ultra-processed diet ate 500 more calories per day, more fat and carbohydrates, less protein, and gained weight.

Growing concerns about the adverse health effects of AUTs have reignited the debate about the link between health and diet, and have given rise to books, communication campaigns and academic work. They also pose the biggest challenge yet to the business model of the agri-food sector, as AUTs are particularly profitable.

The sector responded by launching a fierce campaign against any regulation. Our analysis of data on lobbying in the United States gathered by the NGO Open Secrets reveals that the food industry spent $106 million (99 million euros) on lobbying in 2023, almost twice as much as manufacturers. tobacco and alcohol combined. This amount was up 21% compared to 2020, largely due to campaigns carried out on processed products and sugar.

The tobacco companies’ method

Echoing the tobacco companies’ tactics, the food industry has tried to discourage lawmakers by instilling doubt in the work of scientists like Carlos Monteiro. Barry Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London and a consultant to businesses on the multisensory aspects of food products, summarizes:

“The strategy I see at work in the agri-food sector can be summed up in three words: deny, denounce, temporize.”

So far, this strategy has worked. Only a handful of countries, including Belgium, Israel and Brazil, currently include AUTs in national dietary guidelines. But as evidence mounts against these foods, public health experts say the only question now is how, if at all possible, to translate these recommendations into law.

“Scientists agree on the conclusions, confirms Jean Adams, nutritional public health researcher at the epidemiology unit of the Medical Research Council at the University of Cambridge. What is problematic is their interpretation to develop policy.”

The choice to silence health risks

The food industry, dominated by multinationals like Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mars and Kraft Heinz, says it is concerned about public health. Innovations in trans processes

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