Acceptable Risk? Warning — You Are About to Eat Highly Processed Food

by | May 4, 2022 | Nutrition

Perhaps it goes without saying that you won't find ultra-processed foods in local farmers' markets. But, you will readily find them in the center aisles of most supermarkets. To avoid them, shop the perimeters of the stores. 

A recent commentary in the BMJ Global Health journal calls for a front-of-package warning that the food inside is harmful to your health. The authors draw parallels to the history of research and advocacy to warn people about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. They explain that “despite robust evidence that links ultra-processed foods to serious health consequences, our research indicates that the public does not fully understand this group of products, and it suggests that they might be in the dark about the urgent actions that could be taken to prevent its dire harms.

One could ask if the American food industry which creates and markets these food-like products (sometimes referred to as the “nutritional-industrial complex”, a phrase invented by Michael Pollen that hearkens back to the “military-industrial complex” of the 1960s), deserves to be linked with the likes of the tobacco industry. Could food products really create such “dire harms” that they merit a health warning like cigarettes? A growing body of research would seem to support such a warning. 

However, there’s a very high hurdle of evidence required to get such a warning issued. Consider that in 1964 when the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued the first report of his Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, it was based on more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease already available at that time in the biomedical literature. That’s a lot of documentation.

The authors of the BMJ commentary make their case that there’s plenty of evidence and believe the time to act is now, with more than half the total calories consumed in high-income countries coming from ultra-processed foods and rapid increases of such foods in low- and middle-income countries. Their belief is that these products are exposing billions of people to a higher risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and death. 

No doubt this commentary is alarming: It’s a call to action for government and us as consumers. The good news is, there are a great many actions we can take to reduce our consumption of these foods. The first is simply to understand what ultra-processed foods are. They are foods that can’t be made in our homes. They are combinations of food-like ingredients, ingredients which have been transformed by chemical and industrial processes. You can easily recognize them in the supermarket because they come in packages, are ready-to-eat, contain multiple ingredients and have a long shelf-life. Oh yes, and they’re loaded with preservatives and colorings as well as artificial flavorings and chemicals like emulsifiers. Simply stated, they aren’t real food. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that you won’t find ultra-processed foods in local farmers’ markets. But, you will readily find them in the center aisles of most supermarkets. To avoid them, shop the perimeters of the stores. 

Our advice is to eat real food. In a future column I’ll be writing, in some detail, more about real food. Identifying real food can seem a bit complicated when you consider a host of factors, such as how the food was grown or raised, prepared, preserved and brought to market. I find that it helps me to think of real food as a spectrum, where there’s a scale of “realness” based on my own needs, interests and knowledge. With this in mind, real food is perhaps easiest to understand in terms of the extreme ends of the scale: raw, organically raised carrots at one end versus ultra-processed packaged foods at the other. Not a complete definition, but a good starting point. 

A parting thought: given the power of the processed food industry, we probably do need warnings of the dangers of ultra-processed foods. We certainly needed that for cigarettes. That didn’t stop everyone from smoking, but it did ensure that everyone knew the risks. Only when the risk is known can people decide for themselves whether or not it is acceptable. 

Bob Graves

Bob Graves


Bob Graves is a long-time veteran of publishing of health, environmental and public-benefit information. He holds a Masters degree in Nutrition from UC Davis.

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