Scientist Advocates for Tobacco-Style Warnings on Ultra-Processed Foods

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Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are so harmful to health that they should come with warnings like cigarette packs, says Carlos Monteiro, a leading nutrition expert who coined the term “ultra-processed foods.”

The Problem with UPFs

Monteiro, a professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of São Paulo, highlights that UPFs are becoming a dominant part of our diets worldwide.

These foods increase the risk of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

They’re also pushing healthier, less processed foods off our plates, leading to poorer diet quality.

UPFs are foods that contain multiple ingredients and additives, such as fast food, sugary snacks, and even some items that might surprise you, like baby formula and store-bought bread.

Despite their convenience and taste, these foods are linked to numerous health issues.

The Call for Warnings

Speaking at the International Congress on Obesity 2024, Monteiro argued that UPFs are now so common and damaging that we need to restrict their sale and put warning labels on them, similar to those on cigarette packs.

He believes that such measures could help combat the rising rates of diet-related chronic diseases.

Why Warnings Make Sense

In countries like the US and UK, more than half of the average diet is made up of UPFs.

Studies show that these foods increase calorie intake and are associated with a higher risk of health problems, including heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, and poor mental health.

Monteiro draws a parallel between UPFs and tobacco, noting that both industries produce products that cause serious health issues and premature deaths.

Both are also known for their aggressive marketing strategies and resistance to regulation.

He argues that merely reformulating UPFs to make them slightly healthier is not enough to mitigate their risks.

Criticisms of the Plan

However, not everyone agrees with Monteiro’s approach.

Some experts believe that banning or restricting UPFs is too simplistic.

The term “ultra-processed” covers a wide range of foods, from obvious culprits like fast food to everyday items like fruit yogurt and store-bought bread.

This broad definition means that many foods we consider staples would be affected.

Additionally, UPF consumption is higher among people in poverty.

These foods are cheap, widely available, and have a long shelf life, making them practical choices for many families despite their health risks.

Paul Coleman, a public health expert, points out that parents often buy UPFs because they’re the only affordable option, even though they know these foods aren’t healthy for their children.

The Tobacco Comparison Debate

Some scientists, like Hilda Mulrooney from London Metropolitan University, argue that the comparison to tobacco isn’t entirely fair.

Unlike cigarettes, which are harmful in any amount, we need nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt, which UPFs contain.

These nutrients play important roles in food beyond just taste, such as contributing to structure and shelf life. Reformulating UPFs to reduce these ingredients is challenging and doesn’t address the root problem of overconsumption.

Conclusion

The debate over UPFs and whether they should come with warnings like tobacco products continues.

While the health risks associated with UPFs are clear, finding a balanced solution that addresses both health concerns and practical realities is complex.

Monteiro’s proposal highlights the urgent need for action, but it also raises important questions about how to effectively tackle the issue without disproportionately affecting those who rely on these foods the most.


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