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Nutrition 2023: Will Guidelines Advise on Ultra-Processed Foods?

We’re hearing quite a buzz at Nutrition 2023 about ultra-processed foods. Presenting in a session on scientific questions regarding ultra-processed foods, Distinguished Professor Rick Mattes offered one statement that perhaps everyone concerned with this subject can agree upon:

“An abundance of epidemiologic evidence shows, very convincingly, that there is an association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity. It’s small, with an effect size ranging from about 2% up to 50%, but with an average of about a 20% increase in risk.”

Beyond that point of agreement, perspectives seem to diverge. Along with Mattes, Julie Jones and Lauren O’Connor presented quite an inventory of scientific issues, unresolved questions, and the research agenda for this subject.

So at the end of all that, Christopher Gardner quipped, “It’s amazing how easy it was to take down ultra-processed foods.” Sarcasm is tricky to detect, but it seemed present in the moment.

Clearly, there is some tension about how far policymakers should go in addressing ultra-processed foods in nutrition policy. This is especially evident in discussions around the upcoming 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A Simmering Issue

In the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Jennifer Pomeranz, Jerold Mande, and Dariush Mozaffarian point in the direction of making policy to label ultra-processed foods as “products to avoid.” They conclude that the U.S. has not done much, with serious policy discussions on the subject happening only recently. But they note that other countries are making such policies and suggest this might pave the way for the U.S.

Marion Nestle is less subtle, writing that she has little doubt we need policies targeting ultra-processed foods:

“I think the UPF concept is so solidly backed up by evidence that it is here to stay. But it is so threatening to food companies making UPF products, and the USDA is so captured by the food industry (checkoff programs, anyone?) that it is understandable why they are so eager to cast doubt.”

Other nutrition scientists are not so totally convinced. Biostatistics Professor Andrew Brown tells us he agrees with the perspective Mattes presented:

“Inclusion of guidance on ultra-processed foods in the 2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans would be surprising. This is simply because scientific evidence to support such guidance is presently inadequate.”

Separating Science and Politics

This leaves us wondering but hopeful that we can separate discussions of what the science can tell us from deliberations about what policymakers should do. In tha Atwater Lecture at Nutrition 2023, Patrick Stover offered a template for doing just this, saying:

“We’re all about science-informed policy. We don’t touch politics, beliefs, values, or preferences. That’s the job for politicians to do.”

In nutrition science, keeping these considerations separate is no small task.

Click here for the paper from Pomeranz, Mande, and Mozaffarian and here for further perspective on the complexity of issues in play.

Pumpkin Tortilla Chips, photograph by Ted Kyle, / ConscienHealth

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July 24, 2023

One Response to “Nutrition 2023: Will Guidelines Advise on Ultra-Processed Foods?”

  1. July 24, 2023 at 10:10 pm, Allen Browne said:

    I think we need to start with a definition of “ultra-processed foods”. And the move on to what part of UPF’s are the problem – the packaging, the processing, the additives, …