Calls for ultra-processed food to have tobacco-style warning labels

Calls for ultra-processed food to have tobacco-style warning labels

As more evidence of the negative health impacts of ultra-processed food emerges, experts have called for public health campaigns to spread awareness.

Food scientist Professor Carlos Monteiro told The Guardian that ultra-processed food (UPF) is making up an increasing proportion of diets worldwide, despite its health risks. Professor Monteiro coined the term ‘ultra-processed food’ 15 years ago and continues to warn of the potential link between these foods and chronic health problems.

He said: ‘UPFs are displacing healthier, less processed foods all over the world and also causing a deterioration in diet quality, due to their several harmful attributes. Together, these foods are driving the pandemic of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes.’

In February, a review of data from 9.9 million people linked ultra-processed food to 32 physical and mental health problems. Researchers said higher UPF intake was associated with a 50% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

‘Dangerous by design’

One measure suggested by Monteiro is restricting the sale of UPF in public spaces, such as healthcare facilities and schools. He also addressed the issue of cost, suggesting that UPFs should be taxed and the revenue used to subsidise healthier options. Currently, Professor Monteiro believes convenience and low cost contribute to the ‘overconsumption’ of UPF.

Professor Monteiro also proposed the introduction of public health campaigns, such as warning labels similar to those used on tobacco products. He said: ‘Such campaigns would include the health dangers of consumption of UPFs. Advertisements for UPFs should also be banned or heavily restricted, and front-of-pack warnings should be introduced similar to those used for cigarette packs.’

He continued: ‘Both tobacco and UPFs cause numerous serious illnesses and premature mortality. Both are produced by transnational corporations that invest the enormous profits they obtain with their attractive/addictive products in aggressive marketing strategies and in lobbying against regulation. And both are pathogenic (dangerous) by design, so reformulation is not a solution.’

‘Food is essential to life, tobacco is not’

Doctor Hilda Mulrooney, a reader in health and nutrition at London Metropolitan University, agreed that taxation would be an effective measure. She said: ‘Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages in the UK have been shown to be successful in driving reformulation and changes in consumer behaviour, far more so than voluntary guidance to reduce sugar content of children’s foods, for example.’

However, she also called the comparison to tobacco products ‘simplistic’. She continued: ‘There is no such thing as a safe cigarette, even second-hand, so banning them is relatively straightforward in that the health case is very clear. However, we need a range of nutrients, including fat, sugar and salt, and they have multiple functions in foods – structural, shelf-life – not just taste and flavour and hedonic properties.

‘It is not as easy to reformulate some classes of foods to reduce them and they are not the same as tobacco because we need food – just not in the quantities most of us are consuming.’

Speaking to The Independent, British Dietetic Association spokesperson Duane Mellor also discounted the comparison. He said: ‘It is not straightforward to draw parallels between the food industry and tobacco industry, as food is essential to life, tobacco is not.’

He added: ‘To have a safe food supply in cities our modern society needs some processing to prevent food from becoming contaminated and spoiling, which might result in illness[es], which include diseases like pathogenic strains [of] E.coli, which there has been a recent outbreak of in the UK.’

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