The Hoarders and Wasters

Abundant, Ultra-Processed Food Waste

For an accounting for the food that is fueling a relentless rise in obesity, NIH researcher Kevin Hall is a good source. At the Obesity Medicine 2023 conference in New York Saturday morning, this is exactly what we heard. Systematically, Hall described his work to understand how food can be an important input into a steady rise of obesity. At the end of this trail, we see a story of abundant, ultra-processed food waste.

Food That Prompts Over-Consumption

One important aspect of the global food supply is the evolution toward an increasing reliance on ultra-processed foods. This category from the NOVA system can be a bit slippery to define. But nonetheless, research from Hall and others suggests that ultra-processed food is an important input into the rising prevalence of obesity.

It would be difficult to follow research on nutrition, health, and obesity without taking note of Hall’s 2019 publication on this subject. It was an RCT of diets featuring ultra-processed versus minimally processed foods. In this study, Hall and his colleagues showed that the ultra-processed diet caused people to eat more and gain fat mass in just two weeks. Hall went on to say that an ultra-processed food environment serves to increase both appetite and food intake.

What’s more, ultra-processed foods are playing an increasingly dominant role in the global food supply and they are not all equally problematic. So broad brushes are neither adequate for describing the problems they present nor for solving those problems.

An Ultra-Processed Food Supply That Goes to Waste
Food Waste Infographic

Infographic courtesy of National Geographic

Another key point Hall made on Saturday is that this abundant supply of ultra-processed food is not only prompting more food consumption and weight gain. But in fact, most of the increased production – roughly two-thirds of it – is going to food waste. The increase in the U.S. food supply has outpaced increases in what we consume.

For food marketers, one of the key ways to increase sales is to create more occasions for consuming it. Put your product everywhere and it will be top of mind. People come to believe that they cannot survive a meeting without a snack. Cars gain cup holders and fast-food drive-through service is everywhere.

Putting all this food at our fingertips comes at the cost of food waste. We now have a food supply where more is never enough. Seeing food waste grow more rapidly than even our growing appetites should hardly be surprising.

Click here for Hall’s full presentation at the OMA 2023 conference, here and here for more on the growing challenge of food waste.

The Hoarders and Wasters, engraving by Gustave Doré / Wikimedia Commons

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April 24, 2023

One Response to “Abundant, Ultra-Processed Food Waste”

  1. April 24, 2023 at 7:37 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I enjoyed both informative presentations. I had no idea there was SO much food waste and appreciate the attention Kevin gave to the issue and the quantification of it. Package waste alone of snack items and UP meals really clogs up containers and landfills, regardless of recycling, although here in NL, recycling is extremely efficient as the land for waste is just not as abundant as stateside. This amount of food waste is a travesty. It would be great if Kevin could undertake an RCT at the NIH unit looking at how ‘grazing’ and incessant snacking, a practice much more prevalent since it started in the 80’s versus consumption of 3 ‘square’ meals a day (perhaps with a snack, either midafternoon or evening) — the meal pattern most prevalent before the 80’s, to see how EI, and the other markers he measures, are affected — blood glucose, insulin secretion, etc. If we see evidence of significant detriments to incessant snacking, it‘ll help advise on best meal patterns for health benefits.