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A recipe for disaster? How Ultra-Processed Foods are serving up a major reputational stew

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A recipe for disaster? How Ultra-Processed Foods are serving up a major reputational stew
Tali Kramer

By Tali Kramer, Deputy Managing Director

The furore over Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) is just the latest reputational issue to hit food producers, already dealing with major questions over the sustainability of their business models and their role in causing an obesity health crisis. Add to this supply chain challenges, labour shortages, inflation, avian flu, CO2 shortages and climate change and the industry is facing a seemingly intractable set of problems. Navigation through these issues is essential, but it is also far from easy.

While there’s no globally agreed definition for a UPF, they are broadly defined as food products which have been heavily processed during their production meaning they usually contain five or more ingredients and will have been prepared with food additives to change their flavour, texture, colour, or to extend their shelf-life.

There are two problems for the food industry. First, that branded, ready to eat or “convenient” packaged products dominate commercial food production and second, increasingly vocal experts say they’re seriously bad for us.

Read: A hard truth to swallow – is the food industry protecting vulnerable consumers?

What’s the story?

UPFs shape our eating habits from an early age. About 64% of children’s lunchtime calories come from UPFs and the average UK adult gets 56.8% of their calories from UPFs, according to the British Medical Journal. The proportion of UPFs in our diets is the highest in Europe.

But highly influential experts are now saying this eating habit is dangerous. Henry Dimbleby, author of DEFRA’s 2019 National Food Strategy, has written a new book, Ravenous, having got frustrated at the Government’s lack of action on his much-lauded strategic recommendations. He points to studies which show that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet is correlated with a 12% increase in cancers, a 21% increase in depressive symptoms, and a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease risk.

Others have published even more stark warnings. Celebrity doctor, Chris van Tulleken’s book Ultra Processed People describes “commerciogenic malnutrition” caused by food producers and UPFs which he also links to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer and even tooth decay.

The papers over the weekend criticised a certain new sugary cereal that although wasn’t advertised at children clearly appeals to children. No wonder consumers are beginning to take note.

The reality of UPFs is more nuanced

Nowadays practically all food is processed in some way for reasons of taste, quality and safety. There is a lack of agreed definition around what foods fall into the category and there are concerns about its usefulness as a tool to identify healthier products. For example, foods such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals and baked beans are also usually classified as ultra-processed but “…these can be a convenient and affordable source of some important nutrients…” according to the BNF.

With the majority of families now including two working parents, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are “an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly. These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.”

So, what’s the way forward for ultra-processed foods?

1. Government action

Government action on salt and sugar reduction has floundered, with no clear next steps for the sugar reduction programme and no progress on the health disparities white paper. With a lack of clarity for companies in terms of what good looks like, it is hard for companies to know what to prioritise. This needs to be addressed by government and made crystal clear to incentivise action.

2. Help smaller companies

Smaller companies are the ones struggling to reformulate, with their products becoming increasingly unhealthy compared to those of larger businesses. 97% of food and drink companies are SMEs so helping them with the resources or technical expertise to reformulate their products, similar to Scotland’s Reformulation for Health programme, would be a great step forward.

3. Better education around healthy diets

With a huge amount of conflicting information in the public domain, education is key. Educating young people about healthy diets and lifestyles would be a great step forward, along with improving literacy when it comes to reading and understanding food labels.

4. Create an evidence base

Currently there is a low level of understanding around the interventions that actually work when it comes to tackling poor diets and obesity. To make a lasting impact we need more evidence around policy impact and other behaviour change initiatives that are being piloted in retail settings and local authorities.

5. Simplicity in terms of reporting

For transparent reporting to really make a substantial difference, we need common metrics that resonate with consumers, and are clear and simple enough for everyone to understand. This is where clear communications is key.

The UPF debate may be nuanced, but the need to tackle obesity isn’t. Ultimately, more than 63% of Brits are either overweight or obese and this is the real reputational issue that needs addressing. Solving this urgent problem will require a joined-up approach where industry, government (both local and national) and consumers all play their part.

Contact us here to speak to our experts in the food industry on navigating UFPs and other reputational issues

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