Long stories short
- UK inflation fell below 10 per cent for the first time in eight months.
- A ceasefire in Sudan brought calm after five weeks of fighting.
- Boris Johnson was referred to police over Chequers visits during the pandemic.
The ultra-processed problem
Seven out of ten products in a representative sample of the output of the UK’s 30 biggest food companies are ultra-processed, meaning they were created using industrial methods to be tasty and high in calories despite being low in nutritional value.
So what? Eating ultra-processed foods – like instant noodles, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits and chicken nuggets – has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Investors have been putting pressure on food companies to make their product ranges healthier and some countries urge consumers to avoid such foods. Their prevalence in UK diets is a key finding of the second annual update of the Tortoise Better Food Index.
By the numbers:
70 – percentage share of products in the sample assembled for the index that are ultra-processed
11 – companies in the index, including Kraft Heinz, Mondelez and Birds Eye, that sell these products more cheaply per calorie than their non-ultra processed products
57 – percentage share of the UK population’s calorie intake that comes from ultra-processed foods
85.5 – percentage share of ultra-processed foods in the sample portfolios of the ten companies with the highest profit margins in the index
New lens. This emphasis on the health risks of ultra-processed foods represents a different way of thinking about diet – not just the amount of fat, sugar and salt on the table but how food is made. Research suggests ultra-processed foods encourage over-consumption, contributing to rising obesity levels.
Not your 5-a-day. Ultra-processed foods are attractive to companies because they’re durable and made of low-cost ingredients, but they’re likely to be nutritionally unbalanced – ultra-processed foods in the index are twice as likely to be considered unhealthy according to the government’s nutrient profiling model.
What to do? One regulatory option is a levy on ultra-processed foods in the style of the tax on soft drinks, introduced in 2018, that encouraged manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their products. Failing that, experts say the broad aims of policy should be
- a level regulatory playing field for food companies;
- clarity on definitions and targets; and
- incentives for producers and supermarkets to prioritise healthier options.
“Unless all companies have the same rules, they won’t risk their market share to make these changes and our population will continue to suffer,” says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London.
Mike Barry, former Director of Sustainable Business at M&S, said there’s been progress related to climate thanks to a clear hierarchy of goals. But “when we talk about ultra-processed foods we don’t know what we’re trying to get to”.
Definitions. Some healthy foods, which provide essential nutrients at affordable prices – such as fish fingers and tinned beans – can also be classified as ultra-processed under the widely-used Nova classification.
The Nova system looks at the degree to which foods have been transformed, and the ingredients they contain. But definitions of “ultra-processed” can be slippery. An alternative system known as IARC-EPIC looks at how natural such changes are: drying potatoes is artificial, but drying grapes to make raisins is wholesome.
A Birds Eye spokesperson called the Nova classification “inherently flawed”, claiming some of its definitions of ultra-processed foods were based on perception rather than scientific evidence.
Kraft Heinz added that processing can have value – lengthening the shelf-life of foods, enhancing taste and adding vitamins and minerals. A spokesperson said the company had a long-standing commitment to improving the nutrition of its products, with a focus on reducing sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and calories. Mondelez didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Regulation of ultra-processed foods could prove hard, even if there’s political will to intervene at a time when prices are spiking. In Brazil, government guidelines tell people to avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods. French diners are told to limit their consumption of such foods. Such finger-wagging might be the limit of effective state action.
Note: The analysis is based on a sample of 15-30 products collected by Tortoise for each company to reflect their product range. The selection of products was weighted according to sales data, where available.
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