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For Healthier Food Systems: Turn the Tide Against Ultra-Processed Products

The World Food Programme distributing food in El Salvador. The second of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Credit: WFP/David Fernandez

MELBOURNE, Sep 21 2021 (IPS) - COVID-19 has exposed serious vulnerabilities in how people around the world access and consume food.

One of the more alarming trends is the significant increase in the consumption of foods that may be tasty and convenient, but harm our heath. These ultra-processed products include sugary drinks, snack foods, frozen meals, packaged breads and frozen desserts.

In the half century or so since they have been available, ultra-processed products have largely displaced traditional diets, pushing healthy food options off of store shelves. Ultra-processed products comprise more than half of diets in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom, and between one-fifth and one-third in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.

These low-nutrient foods, which are ready to eat or ready to heat, have become a dominant player in our food system and are now among the most aggressively promoted and marketed products in the world.

Ultra-processed products are booming globally. While sales are highest in Australia, the United States and Canada, they are increasing rapidly in middle-income countries including China, South Africa and Brazil. And worryingly, children and low-income people in communities with fewer healthy food choices, are often the primary targets of ultra-processed product marketing.

As public health and world leaders gather at the United Nations Food Systems Summit on September 23 to discuss how to make food systems healthy and sustainable, they must take a stand against profit-driven commercial influence, to help countries and consumers decrease their reliance on ultra-processed products.

During the U.N. Food Systems Pre-Summit in July, the food and beverage industry’s considerable resources were on full display. One of their tactics was to position themselves as part of the process to create a healthier food system.

Let’s be clear: The food and beverage industry is part of the food system, and while they need to be part of the solution, policymaking focused on a healthy food system cannot by muddied by commercial interests.

To attain healthier food systems, we must urgently address the proliferation of ultra-processed products. Their pervasive and growing accessibility has worried public health experts for years. Today, these ultra-processed products are a majority of what’s available in most people’s neighborhood at an affordable price.

But these foods and beverages—which are chemically or physically transformed using industrial processes that make the product hyper-palatable, more appealing and potentially addictive—come at a cost to consumers: they are known to drive obesity rates up and increase noncommunicable diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers.

Powerful food corporations such as The Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé, Unilever and McDonald’s, invest many millions each year in formulating and marketing these products to be highly desirable.

While sales in high-income countries are beginning to level out, middle- and low-income countries are where “Big Food” sees its future and where sales are expected to significantly grow over the next decade.

COVID-19 exposed the vulnerabilities in our food system and added urgency for more effective global policies to combat food insecurity and promote access to safe and nutritious food.

The good news: decades of lessons learned and global best practices from countries leading the way can guide other governments in turning the tide against ultra-processed foods and beverages.

In many cases, this work is being led by countries across Africa and Latin America. Here are some key results from their efforts:

The gold standard: taxes on sugary drinks and junk food

Over 40 countries have now implemented taxes on sugary drinks. In the 12 months following the roll out of Mexico’s 10% soda tax in 2014, the country saw a decline in the purchases of taxed beverages and an increase in the purchase of water. Taxes work and do double duty—the revenue collected can support health programs.

Warnings about unhealthy food via clear front-of-package nutrient labeling

Several countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Iran and Peru have already implemented or have proposed to implement front-of-package labels on unhealthy foods to reduce the unsustainable burden of poor diets on individuals, government and society.

Chile’s comprehensive health regulations, which included the adoption of front-of-package labels, reduced purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages by nearly 25% in just 18 months. When warning label regulations were first rolled out, Chile was the world’s number one consumer of sugar-sweetened beverages per capita.

Restrictions on marketing and promoting healthy food polices in the public sector

Protecting future generations from the lifelong consequences of unhealthy eating habits is paramount. Children are extremely vulnerable to food marketing, which makes partial or voluntary regulations to restrict marketing ineffective.

In 2016, Chile implemented a ban on advertising ultra-processed products during child-targeted television programs. Following this regulation, preschoolers’ exposure to junk food advertising that featured child-directed appeals, such as cartoon characters, dropped by 35%.

The percentage of TV ads promoting unhealthy foods and drinks (i.e., products that failed to meet the policies’ nutrition criteria) decreased significantly from 42% pre-regulation to 15% post-regulation.

Governments must work alongside the public health community to transform the image of ultra-processed food and beverage products from glossy packaged, alluringly marketed, ready-to-eat, convenient and tasty products, to be seen as what they are: the vector for obesity and a risk factor for serious disease alongside tobacco, alcohol, and other unhealthy commodities.

Taxes, smart labeling, and marketing regulations work. At Vital Strategies, we believe everybody, everywhere has a right to healthy foods. When people are provided with the tools to understand the products that are harmful to their health, they are able to make better decisions.

With unhealthy diets responsible for an estimated 11 million preventable deaths each year, we cannot let the industry stand in the way or even set the rules.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated barriers to accessing affordable healthy foods, forcing many to rely on ultra-processed food and drink products and low-nutrient foods, which has resulted in poorer-quality diets.

Governments have the power to regulate these products and prevent the food industry from controlling our diets. The tools are out there. If we want to stave off the devastation to our food system—and our health—we can’t afford to wait.

Trish Cotter is the Senior Advisor, Global Lead, Food Policy Program at global health organization, Vital Strategies.

Footnote: The UN Food Systems Summit, scheduled to take place on Thursday, 23 September, will be a completely virtual event during the UN General Assembly High-level Week.

According to the UN, the Summit “will serve as a historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.”


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