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Nutrition guidelines could soon warn against ultra-processed foods

For decades, the federal government’s dietary guidelines have urged people to eat plenty of foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein, while warning us to avoid foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

But today, the scientific experts who shape the way we eat may be starting to warn consumers against excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods.

For the first time, the guidelines The committee reviews the science on obesity and ultra-processed foods – industrially manufactured foods that feature unusual combinations of flavors, additives and ingredients, many of which are not found in nature. These include things like chicken nuggets, sugary breakfast cereals, boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen dinners, chips and fast food.

The committee’s findings could lead to a sea change in the way Americans view nutrition, forcing them to think beyond the basic nutrients in a food and instead think about how their food is prepared and what which happens to her before she gets to their table.

A big change in the country’s diet

In recent years, dozens of studies have shown that people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods have higher rates of weight gain, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases. chronic diseases.

Nutrition experts say the emphasis on ultra-processed foods in upcoming guidelines could have a significant effect on the country’s diet and national food programs. The Dietary Guidelines help determine what foods can be served to the approximately 30 million American children who participate in the National School Lunch Program. The guidelines influence the food industry, food assistance programs and agricultural production. They affect the types of meals served in government buildings and on military bases.

Critics have long argued that current health guidelines wrongly focus on individual nutrients and ignore the effects of processing and additives. This essentially allows food companies to meet basic nutritional needs while creating ultra-processed junk food that carries marketing claims that appear healthy, such as “fat-free”, “less sugar”, “high in vitamins” and “reduced sodium content”.

The National School Lunch Program, for example, allows schools to serve meals to children consisting of Domino’s pizza, Lunchables, Cheez-Its and other ultra-processed foods formulated to meet government fat standards , protein, sodium and whole grains. . Again many of these processed foods are loaded with additives. For example, the turkey in a Lunchables box served in schools contains 14 different ingredients, including additives for texture, flavor and shelf life.

“It’s important that dietary guidelines start talking about this,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I hate the fact that children are being fed super-processed junk food in schools when they should be eating healthy foods. We make them fat and unhealthy.

Refusal from the food industry

The Dietary Guidelines are updated every five years by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The next edition will not be published until 2025, but an advisory committee is expected to publish its scientific report next year. One of the questions the committee is examining is whether consumption of ultra-processed foods influences “growth, height, body composition, risk of overweight and obesity, and loss and maintenance of body weight.” weight “.

The food industry’s lobbying campaign has already begun. At least a half-dozen food industry trade and lobbying groups have written letters to HHS urging the government to be careful before issuing a recommendation on ultra-processed foods. They claim that industrial processing makes foods safe, convenient and affordable, and argue that there is no accepted scientific definition of what exactly constitutes an ultra-processed food.

One group, the Institute of Food Technologists, wrote a letter to HHS in September. Anna Rosales, senior director of government affairs and nutrition for the IFT, wrote that food processing helps “preserve food longer and improve its shelf life, which minimizes food waste, is more affordable for consumers because they waste less and guarantee food and nutritional safety. when fresh food is not available or accessible.

In another letter to HHS in September, the American Frozen Food Institute, an industry group, was blunt: “The DGCA should not act on recommendations on the level of food processing under the Dietary Guidelines.” »

The letter was written by Jennifer Norka, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the group. She said the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee should recognize “that all foods can fit into a nutritious diet in moderation.”

A passive intake of calories

Deirdre K. Tobias, a member of the guidelines advisory committee, said she could not comment on the guidelines while the committee’s work is underway. But she added that the evidence from large epidemiological studies showing that people who eat more ultra-processed foods are at higher risk of many diseases is “as compelling as it gets.”

“I think a critical mass of observational evidence has clearly been reached,” said Tobias, an obesity and nutrition epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Tobias said more research was needed to understand the biological mechanisms behind ultra-processed foods and poor health. But she pointed to a landmark 2019 clinical trial conducted by the National Institutes of Health, which found that when people were fed a diet of ultra-processed foods, they consumed about 500 extra calories per day and quickly gained weight. weight compared to when they were eating. a diet consisting primarily of unprocessed foods.

Tobias said that ultra-processed foods appear to induce a higher “passive intake” of calories beyond our energy needs, and that this leads to gradual weight gain and a higher risk of heart-related diseases. obesity. She said research indicates it’s something “inherent in these foods, which is a little scary but also a little reassuring because it might be easier to reformulate these foods than to change our overall food environment.”

Lagging behind other countries

In a study released in July, a group of public health experts concluded that the United States was lagging behind other countries in considering ultra-processed foods in its food policies. Jennifer Pomeranz, author of the study, said it was “great news” that the guideline advisory committee is considering a recommendation on ultra-processed foods.

“It would be a huge step forward,” said Pomeranz, an associate professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

At least half a dozen other countries have issued dietary guidelines in recent years explicitly urging people to reduce their consumption of ultra-processed foods. Mexico’s dietary guidelines, for example, released in May, warn people to “avoid ultra-processed foods such as processed meats and sausages, chips, crackers, cookies, sweet bread and boxed cereals.” .

“I think there is enough evidence to recommend reducing calories from ultra-processed foods,” said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU. “I wouldn’t say don’t eat them at all – that doesn’t make any sense. But ultra-processed foods fall into one category: “Don’t eat too many of them.” »

Ultra-processed foods typically contain artificial sweeteners, synthetic colors, flavors, emulsifiers and other ingredients that people don’t cook with at home, Nestlé said.

“If you can make it at home in your kitchen, then it’s not ultra-processed,” Nestlé said. “When I give talks on this subject, I find that people understand the concept straight away. There is not much problem in defining it.

Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.

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