Lean Cuisine Comfort Cravings Macaroni & Cheese with 0g Added Sugar

Prediction: Guidelines Will Disappoint Ultra-Processed Hardliners

It’s difficult to make predictions – especially about the future. Nonetheless, it’s not hard to see that the new 2025 edition of dietary guidelines will disappoint ultra-processed hardliners.

The rhetoric from that sector sounds increasingly like something from a highly polarized presidential campaign. We pity the nutrition scientists and clinicians who have the hard job of calling scientific balls and strikes in this highly charged atmosphere.

This week, the scientific advisory board for new American guidelines held their fifth meeting. Yesterday, Harvard’s Fatima Cody Stanford presented the committee’s conclusions from a new systematic evidence review evidence on the health effects of this class of foods (UPFs). The bottom line:

Limited evidence suggests that dietary patterns with higher amounts of foods classified as UPF consumed by adults and older adults are associated with greater adiposity (fat mass, waist circumference, BMI) and risk of obesity/overweight. Evidence Grade: Limited.”

Because of great differences in the food supply in different countries, the committee had serious concerns about the generalizability of ultra-processed food definitions to guidelines for the U.S. population. Much of the data on UPFs comes from non-U.S. populations.

A Wobbly Scientific Foundation

Thus, the scientific foundation for sweeping recommendations to cut out ultra-processed foods is a bit wobbly. Given weak evidence, we predict that strong recommendations will not come forth in the guidelines.

In discussion, committee member Christopher Gardner pointed out a key problem:

“It would be hugely problematic to tell people to avoid 60% of the food supply without having something good to replace it.”

Sweeping recommendations would affect food security for many people. The effect would not be good.

Passionate Dogma

Our second prediction is that this careful scientific approach will not go down well with people who are selling (literally, in the form of books) dramatic stories about the evils of ultra-processed foods. Chris van Tulleken says “ultra-processed products are food that lies to us.” With his best-selling book, he tells us:

“These products are specifically engineered to behave as addictive substances, driving excess consumption. They are now linked to the leading cause of early death globally and the number one cause of environmental destruction.”

This prediction seems pretty solid. People like van Tulleken – believing that UPFs are killing people and our planet – will not be patient with a determination that there’s not enough evidence to support their beliefs and demands.

They will say it’s a rigged verdict. Sound familiar?

Click here for information on this week’s meeting. Eventually the page will include links to recordings of it. For further perspective, click here, here, here, and here.

Lean Cuisine Comfort Cravings Macaroni & Cheese with 0g Added Sugar, photograph by Ted Kyle / ConscienHealth

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


May 31, 2024

One Response to “Prediction: Guidelines Will Disappoint Ultra-Processed Hardliners”

  1. June 01, 2024 at 10:04 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Research on UPF is relatively new, less than 10 years, and certainly the link of UPF consumption with occurrence of obesity and other diseases so as to make an unequivocal recommendation to avoid UPF to prevent certain diseases is unwise and difficult, at this time. The variable, ‘UPF’ has been fraught with issues, to begin with — defining UPFs, what is meant by ‘processing’ itself, is it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ processing, etc. Then, making any cause and effect (even strong correlations or associations) of UPF consumption with any diseases is just not easy. Having said that, there IS great research, done robustly by Kevin Hall at NIH, that did show consumption of what are best understood by food experts to be UPF DID result in increasing caloric intake by 500 kcals/day. Perhaps the DGs can asterisk those studies stating that, under the UPF recommendations.