Dietary Guidelines may soon warn against ultra-processed foods

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

But now, the scientific experts who shape the way we eat may start warning consumers against eating too many ultra-processed foods.

For the first time, the instructions The committee examines the science of obesity and ultra-processed foods, industrially produced foods that have unusual combinations of flavors, additives and ingredients, many of which are not found in nature. These include things like chicken nuggets, sweetened breakfast cereals, boxed mac and cheese, frozen dinners, chips and fast food.

The committee’s findings could lead to a fundamental shift in the way Americans view nutrition, forcing them to think beyond the basic nutrients in food, and instead consider how their food is made and what happens to it before it arrives. to their table.

A big change in the diet in the countryside

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

Nutrition experts say highlighting 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 affect 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 requirements while engineering ultra-processed junk foods that carry healthy-sounding marketing claims such as fat-free, low-sugar, vitamin-rich, and sodium-reduced.

The National School Lunch Program, for example, allows schools to serve children meals consisting of Dominos pizza, Lunchables, Cheez-Its and other ultra-processed foods formulated to meet government standards for fat, protein , sodium and whole grains. . However many of these processed foods are full of additives. For example, turkey in school lunches 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, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I hate the fact that kids get ultra-processed junk food in schools when they should be eating healthy food. It makes them fat and unhealthy.

Pushback 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 the advisory committee is expected to issue its scientific report next year. One question the panel is examining is whether eating ultra-processed foods affects growth, size, body composition, risk of overweight and obesity, and weight loss and maintenance.

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

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

In another letter to HHS in September, the American Frozen Foods Institute, an industry group, was blunt: The DGAC should not continue recommending the level of food processing as part of the dietary recommendations.

The letter was written by Jennifer Norka, group director of regulatory and scientific affairs. She said the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee needs to recognize that any food can fit into a nutrient-dense dietary pattern in moderation.

Passive intake of calories

Deirdre K. Tobias, a member of the guidelines advisory committee, said he could not comment on the guidelines while the committees’ work is ongoing. But she said the evidence from large epidemiological studies showing that people who eat more ultra-processed foods have a 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 is needed to understand the biological mechanisms behind ultra-processed foods and ill health. But she pointed to a landmark 2019 clinical trial conducted at the National Institutes of Health that found that when people were fed a diet of ultra-processed foods, they consumed about 500 extra calories a day and gained weight faster compared to when they ate a diet. with mostly unprocessed food.

Tobias said that ultra-processed foods appear to cause more passive intake of calories beyond our energy needs, and that this leads to gradual weight gain and a greater risk of obesity-related diseases. She said the research shows that it’s something inherent to these foods, which is a little scary but also a little reassuring because it may be easier to reformulate these foods than it is to change our entire food environment.

It lags behind other countries

In a study published in July, a group of public health experts concluded that the United States is lagging behind other countries in terms of ultra-processed foods in their food policies. Jennifer Pomeranz, an author of the study, said it’s great news that the guidelines advisory committee is considering a recommendation on ultra-processed foods.

That would be a huge step forward, said Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU’s School of Global Public Health.

At least half a dozen other countries have issued dietary guidelines in recent years specifically urging people to cut back on ultra-processed foods. Mexico’s dietary guidelines, for example, which were released in May, warn people to avoid ultra-processed foods, such as processed meats and sausages, chips, crackers, cookies, sweet breads and boxed cereals.

I think there is enough evidence to recommend cutting 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 which makes no sense. But ultra-processed foods fall into the category, Don’t eat too much of them.

Ultra-processed foods typically contain things like artificial sweeteners, synthetic colors, flavors, emulsifiers and other ingredients that people don’t cook with at home, NestlĂ© says.

If you can make it at home in your kitchen, then it’s not ultra-processed, Nestle said. When I lecture on this, I find that people immediately grasp the concept. There is not much problem to define.

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