Beyond the Headlines: Unpacking the Truth About “Ultra-Processed” Foods and Health

What has been the most striking about the barrage of coverage around so-called “ultra-processed” foods (UPFs) — from online influencers to editorialists presenting their opinion pieces as news articles — is how so much opining has lacked critical information and context integral to allow the consumer drawing their own, fact-based conclusion. Instead, we are left with conjecture around trends that garner the most online engagement, rather than providing thoughtful, informed commentary that can bring something new to the conversation that affects people’s real lives.

The most recent example is media coverage of a study published in the British Medical Journal. The study set out “To evaluate the existing meta-analytic evidence of associations between exposure to ultra-processed foods, as defined by the Nova food classification system, and adverse health outcomes.”

At the outset, it’s important to point out three things: 1. The studies’ authors have cautioned that their findings are not definitive and that the studies outlined correlations, not causations. 2. The study closes with the acknowledgment that “ … the most important factor to reducing risk of death is the quality of a person’s overall diet,” very explicitly not the food on its own, and 3. Because there is not an agreed-upon scientific definition of “ultra-processed,” the Nova system arbitrarily classifies foods based on perception and therefore cannot be considered fact or science-based.

Despite those facts, almost immediately, some national media outlets took the purported findings of the study at face value and ran with salacious headlines proclaiming “High levels of ultra-processed foods linked with early death, brain issues.” This isn’t the first time we’re seeing clickbait like this and the steady uptick in fact-lacking proclamations can limit consumer choice and scare consumers away from feeling confident in making their personal dietary decisions.

Far too often, broad-based assertions made in the media tend to be focused on causing fear among audiences to drive clicks and browser traffic but do not include facts. The demonization of certain foods not only oversimplifies the issue but also ignores the reality of consumers’ lives, their needs and their budgetary constraints.

The makers of America’s food and beverage brands deliver safe, affordable and convenient products that consumers want, need and trust. We support science and the study of CPG products on consumers’ health and wellbeing. We are also mindful of the need to meet consumer demand at all levels. Misleading and alarmist headlines do a serious public disservice and undermine consumer choice.

A crucial determination in the study was overlooked by many articles, either disregarded or buried deep in the text: “dietary quality was observed to have a more predominant influence on mortality outcomes than ultra-processed food consumption,” going on to underscore that UPFs are not a monolithic category and, therefore, cannot be used as a substitute for evaluating overall diet quality. The inclusion almost appears as an afterthought, not a nuanced counterbalance offering both sides of the story that a purported news report should include.

The industry’s goal won’t be redirected by superfluous headlines designed to scare and confuse consumers. Empowering consumers with clear nutritional information and preserving consumer choice so they can make the right decisions for their personal health goals should be the priority in public health guidance. Moreover, the industry is always working on reformulating and evolving products to meet consumer demand. For example, food and beverage companies have been reducing sugar and salt for decades; today, nearly 60% of beverages have zero sugar.

Transparent and clear nutrition information can empower consumers to make healthier food choices. Our industry continues to work toward fostering nutrition transparency through programs like SmartLabel and Facts up Front so that consumers have the resources to make informed decisions about the food and beverage products they purchase.

Looking beyond the headlines that make a splash right now, we know that ingredient lists, the nutrition facts panel, Facts Up Front and SmartLabel work to empower individual choice and preference, so consumers have the information literally at their fingertips.