Food Ultra-Processed, Formulated, and Marketed

Pastry Chef with Red HandkerchiefIn the realm of food, boogeymen come and go. But right now, the bad actor with staying power in global diets seems to be ultra-processed, industrially formulated, and hyper-marketed foods. What’s not to hate about them?

There’s plenty of observational data, and even some good experimental data to make us suspicious. It gives us good reason to believe these foods may play a role in obesity and other health problems arising from poor diets. But even so, our understanding of why they might be problematic is unsatisfying. Is it the actual processing of these foods or is it their formulation? Or do larger issues of marketing come into play?

A new paper by Allen Levine and Job Ubbink prompts us to ask these questions.

Perspective on Food Processing

In their perspective paper for Obesity Science and Practice, Levine and Ubbink make the point that the NOVA system for labeling a food as ultra-processed seems to hinge on its degree of processing. But in fact, they suggest, this may be a misnomer. It may well be that the formulation of these foods is a much larger problem than the extent of their processing. They write:

“It is important to distinguish between formulation and processing of a food. In most cases it is the formulation more than the processing that results in foods that are not recommended as part of a healthy diet. Such ‘ultra‐formulated’ foods are unhealthy because they are high in added sugar and other caloric sweeteners, refined flours saturated fats and salt to increase palatability.”

Not So Fast

Linn Steward, a culinary nutritionist and food formulation analyst, finds value in separating issues with food formulation from issues with its processing. But she’s not quite ready to dismiss the role of processing in creating problems:

“Formulation is absolutely a problem. Energy dense foods with unbalanced amounts of sugar, fat, and salt are not healthy. So it’s prudent to limit frequency and portion size when enjoying these unbalanced foods. Especially if the formulation excludes dietary fiber, essential micronutrients, or bioactives.

“However, processing needs evaluation as a factor as well. The mechanisms that underpin an association between food processing and health outcomes are currently unknown. But investigations continue and suggest multiple social and biological mechanisms might be in play.”

The Role of Marketing

A thread that ties together all of these problems with ultra-processed and formulated food together is the ultra-marketed nature of these foods. Typically, the problems with food marketing are defined in very narrow terms. Much of it has to do with advertising unhealthy foods to children and other vulnerable populations.

But that view of marketing is so narrow that it neglects the larger problem of marketing that starts with product concepts and designs, continues with pricing and placement, and then becomes complete with a whole array of promotions that extend well beyond traditional advertising. Right now, this marketing machine is tuned for one objective – sell ever more units of food. That’s the overarching problem.

Without addressing that fundamental problem, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole with smaller pieces of the problem and getting nowhere.

Click here for the paper from Levine and Ubbink, here and here for further perspective on food marketing.

Pastry Chef with Red Handkerchief, painting by Chaim Soutine / WikiArt

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February 4, 2023

3 Responses to “Food Ultra-Processed, Formulated, and Marketed”

  1. February 04, 2023 at 7:59 am, Al Lewis said:

    I went to Starbucks yesterday for a biz meeting. I don’t do caffeine (I’m an Ambien power user — the two don’t mix), so I am looking for something — anything — that is not full of sugar. All their pastries look gross. And that oversweetened yogurt with granola is full of sugar.

    And the things at the counter were all ultraprocessed bars of various kinds. I finally found a bag of nuts and fruits. I bought it, ate a little and then — what the hell? — it seemed totally sweet, so I read the label. This small bag had 24% of my added sugars for the day, because the dried cranberries and blueberries were all sweetened.

    • February 04, 2023 at 4:38 pm, Ted said:

      The dominant marketing tool in play, Al, was placement. Marketers inserted multiple food options at your fingertips for a biz meeting. Why not? As Lance says, “Don’t go ’round hungry!”

  2. February 05, 2023 at 10:12 am, Charles Benbrook said:

    To me the most robust and useful definition of ultraprocessed food would be a ratio composed of the nutrients in a finished food relative to the nutrients in the raw ingredients that went into the food, after adjusting for any supplements added. Such a measure reflects the degree to which the nutrient content in fresh/raw foods have been lost in the manufacturing process. Comparing this metric with and without all additive/supplements would be a second, telling metric — the degree to which the nutrient content in a food comes from something added to the food that was never a part of the ingredients in the food product.