Game, Fish, and Pickles

The Missing Dialogue on Ultra-Processed Foods

New publications about the role of ultra-processed foods in health and food systems remind us about a missing dialogue. Food policy advocates are very clear that food systems should evolve to favor minimally processed food. Nutrition scientists know that ultra-processed foods have an association with poor health outcomes. But they also know that the science has important limitations. And then finally, food scientists and producers know that food processing is essential for feeding the world.

We have plenty of knowledge on these subjects, but not so much interdisciplinary dialogue.

Reviewing the Science

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis provides a good view of the available science. Giuditta Pagliai and colleagues published this in the British Journal of Nutrition. They found that:

“Increased UPF [ultra-processed food] consumption was associated, although in a limited number of studies, with a worse cardiometabolic risk profile and a higher risk of CVD, cerebrovascular disease, depression and all-cause mortality.”

However, they note that the evidence still has important limitations. This is nothing new for nutrition research. It is an immature field of scientific study presenting difficult challenges.

The Policy Imperative

The science may be equivocal, but policy advocates are ready for action. Renata Costa de Miranda et al spell it out:

“Most of the latest findings have revealed an adverse impact of high UPF consumption on metabolic health, including cardiovascular diseases and mortality. Scientific evidence is accumulating towards the necessity of curbing UPF consumption worldwide at different life stages.”

Note the subtle leap from the knowledge of an association to the presumption of an adverse impact. It is important. Because getting to the root cause of a problem is essential for solving it. People follow leaders who project certainty. So the presumption morphs into certainty. There’s no room for ambiguity.

Not So Fast

However, it turns out that glib demands for “curbing” ultra-processed foods are easier to voice than they are to implement. Dietrich Knorr and Mary Ann Augustin point this out in a recent paper:

“Confusion about the classification of processed and ultra-processed foods and calls to avoid such foods dismiss the necessity of processing for food and nutritional security. Nutritional advice for population health should be based on sound scientific evidence of nutritional value.”

In short, it’s tough to feed the planet without processed foods. What’s more, the dividing line between processed and ultra-processed foods is fuzzy.

Dialogue and Uncertainty

Perhaps it all boils down to this. Policy makers want certainty. So food policy advocates have strong incentives to paper over uncertainties. This can lead to mistakes. Mike Gibney, David Allison, Dennis Bier, and Johanna Dwyer summarize this dilemma nicely:

“In many areas of science, ranging from nutrition to climate change, we must live with imperfect data. However, awareness and unvarnished expression of such imperfections and their impact on policy and legislation are a must.”

Thus, we need better, genuine dialogue among scientists, policy makers, and producers about ultra-processed foods.

Click here for the paper by Pagliai et al, here for the paper by Costa de Miranda et al, here for the paper by Knorr and Augustin, and here for the paper by Gibney et al.

Game, Fish, and Pickles; painting by Ilya Mashkov / WikiArt

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January 2, 2021