Ultra-processed foods and noncommunicable diseases
Unhealthy commodities (including ultra-processed foods, soft drinks, tobacco and alcohol) are important risk factors for many chronic noncommunicable diseases. 60 to 65% of all deaths globally are caused by noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and diabetes. This amounts to 34.5 million of 52.8 million total deaths (in 2010).
The World Health Organization indicates that 80% of heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes could be prevented by eliminating the major risk factors including tobacco, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.
Death is not the only consequence of using unhealthy commodities. Noncommunicable diseases impose years of reduced functionality or disability on people around the world. There is growing evidence from research studies linking the rates of consumption of unhealthy commodities with many debilitating noncommunicable diseases (especially obesity).
In one comprehensive study, those who consumed the most ultraprocessed food had the highest BMIs, were most likely to be smokers, watched more TV and had the highest fat and lowest protein and fiber intake. They consumed the most fast food, fried foods, ate processed meats, consumed the fewest vegetables, and drank sugar-sweetened beverages. This shows an integration of behaviors that lead to disease, disability, and death.
Unhealthy commodities produce profits
Companies that produce unhealthy commodities are businesses that strive to make higher and higher profits. Their aim is to make products that have low production costs, a long shelf-life, taste good, and a high retail value. These characteristics make for higher profits. Soft drink and tobacco producers are among the most profitable market sectors. It is estimated that the profit Coco-Cola’s rakes in amounts to a quarter of the retail price for their products.
Long shelf-life typically requires high levels of processing. This normally means the removal of nutrients to produce what are often called “food like substances.” Highly processed products (called ultra-processed) are made from substances such as oils, fats, flours, starches, various forms of sugar, salt, and cheaper parts of meat. They typically have a high glycemic load (producing spikes in blood sugar), are low in soluble and insoluble dietary fiber, and low in both micronutrients and phytochemicals.
In a study of food products purchases by Americans, more than 80% of calories were from ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Especially for ready-to-eat products, they exceeded the Dietary Guidelines for Americans limits for saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Such products include frozen pizza, pasta dishes, nuggets, crisps, cereal, energy bars, sugary drinks, and various snack products.
Most such products are manufactured, packaged attractively, and advertised by large international conglomerates. They are typically intensely palatable, not perishable, and ready to eat. These products are readily available, priced competitively, and are are aggressively marketed with media advertising and product placements. This gives manufactured food products multiple advantages over most raw ingredients that require time and effort to obtain and prepare and often spoil if not used quickly.
In the United States and most developed countries these ultra-processed food like substances have largely replaced foods prepared in the home from raw, fresh, minimally processed ingredients. You just need to go to any grocery store or supermarket and walk down the aisles to see all the manufactured products while the fresh, raw ingredients are on the perimeter or periphery of the store.
You are probably very familiar with such products. Top ten manufactures of packaged foods in the US are:
- Kraft Foods, Inc.
- PepsiCo Inc
- Nestle SA
- Mars Inc
- Kellogg Co
- General Mills Inc
- The Hershey Co
- ConAgra Foods Inc
- Unilever Inc
- Campbell Soup Inc
No doubt you have many products from these manufacturers and their subsidiaries in your home right now.
Manufacturers reluctant to hange
There are tremendous profits to be made from unhealthy commodities. So, there is little incentive for manufacturers to transition away from these products. No company wants their quarterly earnings to fall below expectations for several consecutive quarters; it could well lead to a change in management.
To combat the perception that their food products are unhealthy, food manufactures have followed a number of strategies that were first used by tobacco companies. These strategies are basically to influence both the public and governmental leaders.
Public Perception of Health
Most processed food manufacturers seemingly promote health through various research projects and health initiatives. This helps focus attention on other causes for noncommunicable diseases. For example, Roger K. Deromedi, then Chief Executive Officer of Kraft Foods talked about its Worldwide Health & Wellness Advisory Council and their efforts at promoting health:
“Our ongoing actions are part of a broader societal response to growing health and wellness concerns, including obesity. It’s going to take a comprehensive approach that involves many sectors of society to truly accelerate the change that’s needed. We’re ready, as are many other food companies, to collaborate and cooperate with governments, policy experts, industries and communities around the world.”
Diversifying into what is perceived as healthy foods is another strategy. Kellogg’s chief executive Steven A. Cahillane talked about strategies to retain and gain market share. He wants to stabilize market share in the morning foods area. But, Kellogg is not standing still. He indicated that Kellogg is making a transition “from primarily a cereal business to much more of an innovative snacking business.” Part of this strategy was the acquisition of RXBAR, makers of whole food protein bars. Cahillane said, “That’s a business that filled the white space for us and is doing incredibly well and really connecting with consumers and growing rapidly.”
General Mills give the public reassurance about GMOs in their products. They cite such prestigious bodies as the US Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization as supporting the safety of genetically modified organisms.
But, General Mills is also promoting organic foods through diversification. It has acquired several organic food producers including Small Planet Foods (owner of Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen brands), Humm Foods (makers og LÄRABAR fruit and nut bars), Food Should Taste Good (maker of all-natural snacks), Immaculate Baking (making wholesome cookies), Annie’s (producer of organic and natural food products), and EPIC Provisions (providing meat snacks).
Lobbying for favorable laws or against unfavorable laws is an important function for grocery manufacturers. A major lobbying group supported by food manufacturers is the Grocery Manufacturers Association. In 2017 it spent $2,396,752 for its lobbying efforts.
But, many food manufacturers are leaving the Grocery Manufacturers Association because of their perceived antiquated policies. These manufacturers ( like Campbell Soup, Nestlé, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson Foods, Unilever, the Hershey Company, Cargill, the Kraft Heinz Company, and DowDuPont) are working on their own.
And, the combined efforts of all the food industry’s lobbying efforts are most successful.
Time in a report Experts Say Lobbying Skewed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, indicates that many doctors say the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture are “out of step with the latest medical research.” The guidelines are the result of work by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made up of experts in health and nutrition.
But, Time indicates that there are discrepancies between the committee’s report and the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans document. The differences are due to “lobbying and manipulation of data” by the food industry. The article points out that the USDA’s primary stakeholders are major food producers and manufacturers rather than the public.
In addition, political pressure shapes what the final guidelines can tell the public. For example, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee described a healthy diet as being “lower in red and processed meats” as well as “low in sugar-sweetened drinks.” Yet, these recommendations never made it to the final document.
Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco criticized the USDA’s food pyramid which suggests a majority of your food come from carbohydrates. He indicated that “This advice to eat more carbs and avoid fat is exactly backwards if you want to improve health and lower body weight.”
It’s as if the US Department of Agriculture was more interested in the health of the food producers than the health of the food consumers.
Conclusion: Health is a Personal Choice
If you are to become and remain healthy, it’s up to you.
We cannot depend on the food providers, the government, nor even the medical community with limited understanding of nutrition.
You must take ownership of your own health. Learn how to help your body restore and maintain health. It’s your best option for a long and vibrant life.
- 2008-2013 Action Plan for the Global Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases publication of the World Health Organization
- Ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of overweight and obesity: the University of Navarra Follow-Up (SUN) cohort study as published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? as published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- Burden of Noncommunicable Diseases and National Strategies to Control Them in Korea as published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine & Public Health
- Manufacturing Epidemics: The Role of Global Producers in Increased Consumption of Unhealthy Commodities Including Processed Foods, Alcohol, and Tobacco as published in PLOS Medicine
- Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries as published in The Lancet
- Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health as published in PLOS Medicine