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Should we ban ultra-processed foods? Second Nature statement

Robbie Puddick
Written by

Robbie Puddick

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

6 min read
Last updated June 2024
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Jump to: Obesity and lifestyle-related chronic disease is crippling the NHS | 1) Tax ultra-processed foods using the NOVA classification system | 2) Ban ingredients used in ultra-processed foods we know are detrimental to human health, like trans fats | 3) Improve education on nutrition and the negative impact of ultra-processed foods | Take home message

We don’t believe an outright ban on ultra-processed foods is necessary. However, we believe greater regulations should be introduced regarding their production, marketing, and advertising.

We also believe that some ingredients in ultra-processed foods, like trans fats, should be banned as comprehensive evidence proves they’re harmful to human health at any level of intake.

Finally, we’d also want greater nutrition information and education provided to the public to give them the required knowledge and skills to reduce their reliance on ultra-processed foods.

The UK government should prioritise reducing ultra-processed food consumption if it wants to take the population’s health seriously and achieve its mission of reducing NHS waiting lists.

Obesity and lifestyle-related chronic disease is crippling the NHS

Over a quarter of the UK population are now obese. This costs the NHS about £15 billion pounds per year, and around 30% of the UK government’s public services budget is spent on health. Or, you could argue: on disease.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are debilitating to live with; they shorten your life and make it difficult to work and be a productive member of society. Yet, lifestyle diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes are entirely preventable in most circumstances.

There are many causes of these diseases, but one really stands out: how our diet has changed in the past 40 years.

Ultra-processed foods are a recent introduction to our diets and the link to lifestyle disease is clear.

Not only that but every part of these foods is engineered to make us want more of them. They’re very difficult to resist, from the sugar and fat content to the texture to the way they’re marketed.

Ultra-processed foods ignite the same dopamine reward pathways in the brain that are implicated in addictions like alcohol and other drugs like cocaine.

This isn’t to say that ultra-processed foods are as addictive as these substances, but they’re contributing to the same reward pathways that keep us coming back for more.

Ultra-processed foods could be considered the smoking of our generation – with all the same warning signs. Governments are being called to change, and big companies are lobbying against it and denying their impact on our health. Something has to change.

The government has intervened time and time again – from seatbelts to smoking – saving millions of lives in the process.

Public health campaigns can only go so far. This isn’t solved by adding a warning label on food. Similar to cigarette packets, you can say, ‘This will kill you’, and people will ignore it. That’s because these products are convenient, well-marketed, and potentially addictive.

Having said all this, a straight ban on all ultra-processed foods fails to account for the nuance of what UPF is and why it is ‘bad’ and removes human agency in decision-making.

We’re not the food police and don’t believe banning ultra-processed foods is the answer.

However, we do believe that certain things should be done to facilitate an environment in which healthier choices can be made and reduce our reliance on ultra-processed foods.

So, we’ve outlined three potential approaches the UK government can take to help reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods, improve the population’s health, and save our NHS.

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1) Tax ultra-processed foods using the NOVA classification system

We suggest a tax on all foods and beverages classified as ultra-processed according to the NOVA classification system. These typically have high levels of added sugars, trans fats, and artificial additives.

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or mainly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugars, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesised in laboratories (flavour enhancers, colourings, and preservatives).

Examples include soft drinks, packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared frozen dishes, and many ready-to-eat products.

The tax could be set as a percentage of the retail price or as a fixed amount per unit weight/volume, for example, per kilogram or litre.

Different tax rates might be applied based on the degree of processing and the healthiness of the products.

For instance, foods high in sugar or trans fats could attract higher taxes than those with lower levels of these ingredients. This might inherently promote reformulation by the food industry to create products that are less harmful to our health.

The government could also combine this policy with a whole food subsidies act, which would use the revenue from the UPF tax to subsidise the production of whole foods that benefit human health, such as meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables.

2) Ban ingredients used in ultra-processed foods we know are detrimental to human health, like trans fats

Generally, you can argue that many ingredients in ultra-processed foods aren’t harmful in moderation.

For example, there’s no clear evidence that consuming added sugar within a certain threshold is deleterious to our health. The dose makes the poison.

However, some ingredients, such as trans fats, are detrimental to human health in any quantity and shouldn’t be allowed to be part of our food system.

We have evidence to support that a ban on trans fat improved health outcomes. Denmark banned trans fats in 2004, and research has shown that it significantly improved health outcomes in the country.

To quote the authors, “Following the ban, cardiovascular mortality dropped considerably, while the trends of adolescent and child obesity came to a halt and decreased significantly compared to the synthetic control group. Our findings provide new insights into the benefits for public health arising from the banning of trans fats.”

Currently, trans fats are not banned in the UK, despite The World Health Organisation calling for a global ban on “toxic” trans fats by 2023 in 2018.

We believe banning specific ingredients in UPFs with a clear evidence base of harm will reduce their negative impact on human health.

3) Improve education on nutrition and the negative impact of ultra-processed foods

One current issue is that many of us don’t know what UPFs are, their impact on human health, or what foods to choose instead.

We believe investing in nutrition education for children and parents alike would help to promote a healthier dietary pattern and reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

‘More education’ sounds very ambiguous, but it would need to be a multi-faceted approach, here are some specific ideas on how we could increase nutrition education in the UK:

  1. Integrate comprehensive nutrition education into the national curriculum for primary and secondary schools, covering topics such as learning about the food system, the benefits of whole foods, and identifying UPFs.
  2. Develop interactive educational campaigns, leveraging social media platforms, to raise awareness about the potential health risks associated with excessive consumption of UPFs.
  3. Collaborate with healthcare professionals, such as dietitians and nutritionists, to conduct community-based workshops and seminars, educating parents and caregivers on making informed food choices for their families.
  4. Implement mandatory front-of-package labelling systems on food products, clearly identifying UPFs and providing easy-to-understand nutritional information.
  5. Partner with local community centres, youth organisations, and religious institutions to organise cooking classes and demonstrations that promote the preparation of fresh, nutritious meals. (Bags of Taste are an excellent example of this that is already in action.)
  6. Develop educational resources, such as pamphlets, infographics, and mobile applications, that provide practical tips and recipes for incorporating more minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods into daily meals that are free for the public.
  7. Provide training and resources for healthcare professionals, enabling them to effectively counsel patients on the potential risks of UPFs and recommend healthier alternatives.
  8. Encourage and support research efforts to better understand the long-term health impacts of UPFs and to develop effective strategies for promoting healthier dietary patterns.

Take home message

At Second Nature, we entirely agree that human agency in decision-making is essential. We don’t want to be the food police and remove people’s freedoms or liberty.

However, we’re currently at a crossroads and need to decide what we’d prefer:

  1. To continue to allow the excess consumption of ultra-processed foods and cripple the population’s health and our NHS, or
  2. Intervene to regulate ultra-processed foods and put in place policies specifically targeted to reduce their consumption, improve our health, and save our NHS

We believe option two is by far the best option. In the meantime, we’ll continue our mission to help 10 million people lose weight sustainably over the next 10 years.

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