Tobacco-like public health campaigns needed to expose the full extent of the harms of ultra-processed foods, public health experts say in the open access journal BMJ Global Health.
Despite strong evidence linking these products to serious health consequences, the public is unaware of the real dangers of these “foods” and has likely been deceived by the industry’s clever marketing tactics, according to the authors.
More and stronger health warnings are needed to empower consumers to make healthier choices, they insist.
Ultra-processed foods have been chemically or physically processed using industrial processes.
They’re high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, and usually come in the form of packaged, ready-to-eat foods that contain more than five ingredients and have a long shelf life.
“The industrial processing, as well as the cocktail of additives, flavors, emulsifiers and colors that they contain to impart flavor and texture, make the final product super palatable, or more attractive and potentially addicting, which in turn leads to poor eating habits, âthey explain. the authors of the world health organization Vital Strategies.
More than half of the total calories consumed in high-income countries come from ultra-processed foods, which are “among the most aggressively promoted and marketed in the world”, with rapidly growing sales in low-income countries and intermediate.
As a result, billions of people are likely to be at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and death, according to the authors.
Research by authors in Colombia and Brazil indicates that while people may not recognize the term âultra-processed products,â they do recognize that these products are harmful.
Nonetheless, their own research shows that these products are also associated with positive emotions, such as satisfying food cravings, being tasty, and bringing joy, all of which could be the result of “decades of persuasive marketing by the food industry.” suggest the authors.
âJust as marketers build a brand, the public health community needs to make sense of the term ‘ultra-transformed’,â which experts in this field have yet to do.
âThe public health community has been notoriously negligent when it comes to public health messaging and branding,â they say, citing the term ânoncommunicable diseaseâ as an example.
It is “an awkward technical term that defines an important category of disease – cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more – by what they are not, and little known outside of public health circles.” they write.
But the success of tobacco control offers a useful lesson in how to tackle this major health threat, they say.
It is a shining example of “huge political gains and a strong public understanding of the consequences of consuming an unsafe product,” they suggest.
âMuch of this success has been the result of the use of proven marketing techniques, coupled with a staunch adherence to the science of tobacco harms,â they explain.
âIt’s time to invest in establishing the negative brand identity that ultra-processed foods and drinks deserve.
âWe could start by learning the lessons of tobacco control to raise awareness and run campaigns that reveal the true nature of these products and the looming threat to the health of consumers,â they write.
Along with public education directly linking these products to serious health concerns, the front-of-package warning labels – already adopted in some countries – could be further strengthened by incorporating an ultra-warning label. treated “to signal an independent and additional measure of insalubrity”, they propose.
“If we are to avoid the devastation of our food system and our health, governments – with the support of the global public health community – must urgently implement effective strategies that lead to reduced consumption of these unhealthy products and allow healthier choices, âthey insist.