Scientists on panel defending ultra-processed foods linked to food firms
What are ultra-processed foods and why are they controversial?
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are products that have gone through multiple processes during manufacturing, such as extrusion, moulding, pre-frying, baking, and adding artificial flavours, colours, sweeteners, preservatives, and other additives. Examples of UPFs include cereals, protein bars, fizzy drinks, ready meals, fast food, ice cream, and biscuits.
UPFs are controversial because they have been associated with various health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. Several studies have shown that higher consumption of UPFs is linked to higher risk of these conditions. Some experts have suggested that UPFs should be avoided or minimised in the diet, and that people should eat more fresh or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, milk, and cheese.
How did the panel defend ultra-processed foods?
On Wednesday, September 28, 2023, a panel of five scientists held a media briefing in London to discuss the evidence and implications of UPFs. The briefing was organised by the Science Media Centre (SMC), an independent organisation that aims to provide accurate and balanced information about science to the media and the public.
The panel argued that UPFs are not necessarily bad for health, and that some of them may even have benefits. They claimed that most research on UPFs is observational and cannot prove causality, and that other factors such as lifestyle, genetics, and socioeconomic status may confound the results. They also pointed out that some UPFs are nutritious and convenient, such as wholemeal bread, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, and fortified milks. They suggested that consumers should focus on the overall quality and balance of their diet, rather than on specific food categories or labels.
The panel generated headlines such as “Ultra-processed foods as good as homemade fare, say experts”, “Ultra-processed foods can be good for you, say nutritionists”, and “Ultra-processed foods can sometimes be better for you, experts claim”.
What are the ties between the panel and the food industry?
- Prof Janet Cade of the University of Leeds: She is the chair of the advisory committee of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), a charity that is funded by companies such as Nestlé, Mondelēz, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, British Sugar, and Mars. The BNF provides educational resources and training on nutrition to schools, health professionals, and the public.
- Prof Pete Wilde of the Quadram Institute in Norwich: He has received research funding from Nestlé for projects on food structure and digestion. He is also a member of the scientific advisory board of FoodUnfolded (formerly EIT Food), a platform that aims to inform consumers about food innovation and technology. FoodUnfolded is supported by companies such as PepsiCo, Unilever, Danone, Kellogg’s, and General Mills.
- Dr Sarah Berry of King’s College London: She has received research funding from Mondelēz for projects on chocolate consumption and health outcomes. She is also a co-investigator of a study on personalised nutrition funded by Nestlé.
The other two scientists on the panel are Prof Kevin Whelan of King’s College London and Dr Gunter Kuhnle of the University of Reading. They do not appear to have any direct links to the food industry.
What are the implications and reactions of this revelation?
The revelation of the ties between some of the panel members and the food industry raises questions about the credibility and objectivity of their statements on UPFs. It also highlights the potential conflicts of interest and biases that may influence scientific research and communication on nutrition and health.
Some experts have criticised the panel for downplaying or dismissing the harms of UPFs. They have also called for more transparency and accountability in disclosing and managing industry funding and involvement in science.
- Prof Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo in Brazil: He is one of the leading researchers on UPFs and their effects on health. He said: “This is a very serious issue. The SMC should not have invited scientists with clear conflicts of interest to speak at this briefing. They should have disclosed their ties to the food industry and explained how they dealt with them. They should have also invited other scientists with different views and perspectives to provide a balanced picture.”
- Prof Nita Forouhi of the University of Cambridge: She is an epidemiologist who has conducted studies on UPFs and chronic diseases. She said: “This is a wake-up call for governments and policymakers to take action on UPFs. There is enough evidence to show that UPFs are harmful to health and should be regulated and taxed. We need to protect the public from the influence of the food industry and promote healthy and sustainable diets.”
- Prof Tim Spector of King’s College London: He is a geneticist and the founder of the ZOE app, a platform that uses artificial intelligence and big data to provide personalised nutrition advice. He said: “This is a missed opportunity for the panel to educate the public about the importance of food quality and diversity. UPFs are not only bad for health, but also for the environment and the microbiome. We need to encourage people to eat more natural and varied foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, cheese, and fermented foods.”