It’s been called more addictive than heroin and cigarettes.
Dishes in this category include many staples of the Western diet: potato chips, French fries, hot dogs, bacon, candy, sodas and other dangerously tasty treats. Despite this, authors argue that the public is largely unaware of the potential health dangers of these foods, thanks to “decades of persuasive marketing by the food industry” and flavors scientifically proven to get people hooked.
Meanwhile, they’re also frequently cheaper, more convenient and made more accessible for purchase, especially for those in low-income communities.
“The industrial processing, as well as the cocktail of additives, flavors, emulsifiers and colors they contain to give flavor and texture, make the final product hyperpalatable or more appealing and potentially addictive, which in turn leads to poor dietary patterns,” reads the paper.
As more than half of the calories consumed in affluent nations comes from ultra-processed foods, diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity have reached record highs. Along with weight and harmful cholesterol gain, junk foods are also known to disrupt hormone processes, weaken immunity and increase the overall risk of premature death.
Earlier this year, another set of experts, including New York University food and nutrition scholar Marion Nestle, appeared in the journal to urge members of the United Nations Food Systems Summit to “reshape” the global food industry via “policy interventions” that would reduce ultra-processed food production, and also make fresh and “whole” foods more affordable and accessible to all.
On why policy regulation is needed, they highlighted the aim of ultra-processed food companies, which is to “increase profits by creating hyperpalatable and convenient food products that are grossly inferior imitations of minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals.”
While Big Junk Food has money to burn in slick advertising, “the public health community has been notoriously negligent of public health messaging and branding,” wrote Vital Strategies researchers, from Colombia and Brazil, in their commentary titled “Warning: ultra-processed’ — A call for warnings on foods that aren’t really foods.” They want to get people to understand what exactly doctors mean when they tell patients to avoid processed foods.
To spread the word, they want to start with graphic warning labels à la cigarette packaging.
“It’s time to invest in establishing the negative brand identity that ultra processed foods and beverages deserve,” the authors wrote. “We could start by taking lessons learnt from tobacco control to build public awareness and campaigns that reveal the true nature of these products and the looming threat to consumers’ health.”
The campaign against smoking was a “huge policy win,” they said. Indeed, studies have shown that warning labels on tobacco product-related marketing material, including the packaging, has resulted in more attempts to kick the habit.
Aggressive measures to educate the public is essential “to stave off the devastation to our food system and our health,” the report added.