Posted on Jul 24, 2023, 2 p.m.
Many studies have linked ultra-processed foods which include hot dogs, fruit-flavored drinks and industrially processed packaged snacks to a variety of health issues ranging from certain cancers to weight gain. This has many Americans asking if there is so much evidence where are all of the food policies to help people avoid these foods?
A study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has found that there are only a small number of U.S. policies that consider ultra-processed foods and that America is behind other countries that have taken measures to inform their residents such as Israel, Belgium, and Brazil.
“In some countries, ultra-processed foods have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but in the U.S., few policies directly target ultra-processed foods,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study.
“It’s clear that the extent of processing of a food can influence its health effects, independent of its food ingredients or nutrient contents. Ultra-processed foods generally contain ‘acellular nutrients’—nutrients lacking any of the natural intact food structure of the source ingredient—and other industrial ingredients and additives that together can increase risk of weight gain, diabetes, and other chronic diseases,” said study co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, the Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.
Decades of research have produced a growing body of evidence demonstrating that there is more to dietary quality than just nutrients. Despite the evidence, there are only a few countries around the world that have taken steps to directly regulate ultra-processed foods, and those that have limited the consumption of ultra-processed foods in schools as well as recommend consuming less of it in their dietary guidelines. However, in America, the guidelines that serve to inform the nation’s food and nutrition policies do not currently mention ultra-processed foods.
The scientific advisory committee for the 2025-2030 U.S. Dietary Guidelines has been tasked with evaluating research that is related to ultra-processed food consumption as it relates to weight gain.
To understand how policymakers can/have addressed ultra-processed food in policies, the researchers from this study gathered all federal and state bills, statutes, resolutions, regulations, proposed rules, and Congressional Research Service Reports that are related to highly-processed and ultra-processed foods. The researchers identified 25 policies that were proposed or passed between 1983-2022, of which 22 were proposed or passed since 2011 which confirms that making policy on ultra-processed foods is a recent development in America.
According to the researchers, American policies on ultra-processed foods tend to mention them as being contrary to healthy diets, and most policies had to do with healthy eating for children, including limiting ultra-processed foods in schools as well as teaching children about nutrition. A common theme in some policies was the relatively higher price of healthy foods vs ultra-processed foods. Only a single policy, found in a Massachusetts school food bill, actually defined what ultra-processed foods are, and another three sought to address the broader food environment by offering incentives to small retailers for stocking healthy food items.
“The emerging policy language in the U.S. on ultra-processed foods is consistent with international policies on the topic. We would urge a more robust discussion and consideration of ultra-processed foods for future policymaking,” added Pomeranz. “The United States should consider processing levels in school food policies—especially to update the ‘Smart Snack’ rules—and to ensure the U.S. Dietary Guidelines reflect the evidence on ultra-processed foods and health.”
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement.
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