Red Apples

Taking a Bite Out of Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods seem to be a problem for human health. For one thing, the link between consuming them and bad health outcomes seems strong. We have a steady stream of new studies to confirm this. For another, we have some pretty compelling experimental evidence from well-controlled studies to tell us that there may be a causal link between consuming ultra-processed foods and weight gain. Nonetheless, our consumption of them continues to grow.

New research tells us that it’s possible to have an effect on consumption of these foods early in life. Can it make a difference in health outcomes?

A Significant Effect in Children Four to Seven

In the British Journal of Nutrition, Bruna Lazzeri and colleagues report on an RCT to test the effect of a healthy eating intervention with young mothers and their infants. They enrolled 323 teenage mothers and their infants in South Brazil. The intervention started in the maternity ward and continued at home with six sessions lasting about 30 minutes each. The home sessions came 7, 15, 30, 60, and 120 days after birth.

Between four and seven years later, follow-up visits assessed the dietary behaviors and BMI of the children in the study. What they found was no effect on breast-feeding duration. But they found a 35 percent reduction in high consumption of ultra-processed.

Though they measured BMI, this was not a primary outcome and the results did not suggest a significant difference between the two groups. In fact, a higher proportion (38 percent) of the children in the intervention group were overweight at the end of the study than in the control group (31 percent).

The Puzzle of How to Improve Health

So this leaves us with a puzzle. Nutrition experts are reasonably confident that too much ultra-processed food is not good for our health. And yet, this stuff has an ever growing role in our global food systems. Can we reduce our dependence upon these foods? Even if we can, will it have any effect on the health of the population?

Some food policy wonks have no patience with such questions. The answer to that first question is to get to work and get it done. They are hard at it. But the second question is more important. We need both curiosity and objectivity to be sure that policies will have a net positive effect.

It’s not very helpful to simply make people eat differently if we do nothing to improve health in the process. Food is more than just a substance that delivers nutrients. Messing with food systems can have surprising and unintended effects. Act now, ask questions later is a formula for serious mistakes.

Click here for the Lazzeri study and here for another perspective on transforming global food systems.

Red Apples, painting by Gustave Courbet / WikiArt

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January 24, 2021

4 Responses to “Taking a Bite Out of Ultra-Processed Foods”

  1. January 24, 2021 at 7:52 am, Al Lewis said:

    With the exception of trans fats (now pretty much gone) and added sugars, what amazes me about nutrition and your blog post is how nuanced and uncertain the conclusions are, and how they likely vary person to person

    • January 24, 2021 at 12:21 pm, Ted said:

      You are right, Al. Food is more than a substance. The human interface with food has deep significance for our health and well-being that we hardly understand.

  2. January 24, 2021 at 2:22 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    Or it could be that ultra-processed food isn’t really a thing.

  3. January 24, 2021 at 2:55 pm, Chester Draws said:

    Nutrition experts are reasonably confident that too much ultra-processed food is not good for our health.

    Nutrition experts have been reasonably confident about all sorts of things that turned out to not be true.

    Part of the problem is political. If we go to Wikipedia we see this: “Ultra-processed foods are food and drink products that have undergone specified types of food processing, usually by transnational and other very large ‘Big food’ corporations. These foods are designed to be “convenient, eaten on the go, hyperpalatable and appealing to consumers, and, most importantly, the most profitable segment of Big Food companies’ portfolios because of these foods’ low-cost ingredients”

    So what should be a definition becomes an attack on corporations.

    We need nutrition to get rid of the hatred of capitalism and just look at the food as food.