Examining ultra-processed food: Expert panel delves into misconceptions, confusion and challenges
27 Apr 2023 --- FoodDrinkEurope gave a presentation on the misconceptions around ultra-processed foods (UPF) with an expert panel discussing whether processed foods always equal being more unhealthy. Touching upon the issues in Europe of nutritional imbalance and obesity, the panel argues that processing foods is inevitable while emphasizing the need for increased education and transparency from the food industry.
“For us, it’s unclear what is meant by UPF and we also see that consumers are confused. It’s also unclear what we as the food sector need to do about UPF and if we need to do anything,” says Gert Meijer, chair at the European technology platform Food for Life.
He argues that the food sector is convinced that we need processing to produce foods for healthy and sustainable diets.
Andreas Håkansson, associate professor in Food Engineering at Lund University, Sweden, defines food processing as “when we do something to change a food using heat, chemistry or force.”
“We all do food processing at home daily when we cook, for example, when we fry a piece of salmon, grate carrots, or boil potatoes.” He adds that the initial reason for food processing was to increase food’s nutritional availability and make them easier to eat.
Meijer further adds that there is no proven relationship between the degree of processing and the healthiness of a food product. “We need to transform agricultural raw materials into food products. I think the food industry with the larger scales can typically do that with more control, compared to at home.”
“But the point is that the classification system has not been scientifically validated, so it doesn’t help us understand the relationship between food intake and health. We think the food’s nutritional composition, structural eating rate and digestibility impact human health but not the level of food processing. But we have an issue in the food industry – a lack of consumer trust.”
Time to open the doors?
When asked why there is a lack of trust from consumers and if that mistrust is valid, Meijer told NutritionInsight: “We are totally to blame as the food industry because we are working behind closed doors for factories to make our products.”
“The main reason is that we don’t want to educate our competitors to know more than they already know, but there is also no transparency of what we do in the factory, so consumers have no idea what food processing looks like,” he continues.
“Many of the steps we do in factories are steps we also do in our kitchen if we cook. Of course, there are more extreme examples, but letting them [consumers] know what is being done is very helpful.”
He says there is no additional cost to making the process more transparent. It’s only about “opening the doors.”
“There is nothing chemical or secret about the process, it’s fascinating if you look at how we make frozen pizzas. It’s exactly the same process as making a pizza at home, but we do ten pizzas in a row, and then it’s immediately slightly baked, frozen and distributed, but it’s nothing different from if you cook a pizza at home.”
When asked where the lack of trust comes from, he says, “you don’t want others to touch your food, and we [the food industry] do that, but not transparently. So we also don’t give consumers a reason or opportunity to trust us.”
Continuing on the lack of trust, Håkansson adds, “nothing can be used as an ingredient or preservative if we don’t have evidence that it is safe. Consumers often worry a lot about chemical additives or preservatives in food.”
“As food engineers or processing professionals, we worry more about the safety issues of microorganisms and everything else. In my perspective, that is a larger health issue.”
He further notes that many treatments are carried out to ensure safety but adds that food engineers should be better at communicating these actions.
Edith Feskens, professor and chair of global nutrition at Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands, comments: “I think, in general, it’s basic psychology. Eating is emotion and identification with other people or cultures. Not knowing exactly what’s inside is a little bit scary. Overall, people are worried if it’s a chemical name, but if you say it’s vitamin C, it’s okay.”
“Not having everything under control makes consumers insecure. Based on that, they become less trustful. Being transparent and more educational, such as with labeling or health scores, is the only way to improve this,” adds Feskens.
She stresses that we have an idea of what is healthy, such as eating a lot of greens and high protein levels or choosing wholegrain rather than refined grains. “However, when it comes to UPF, some foods included in that category, such as bread and cereal, have shown to be beneficial for people with diabetes.”
By Beatrice Wihlander
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