A new UK Government review into the health impacts of ultra-processed foods (UPF) may have been skewed by industry ties, conflicted financial interests and a “narrow framing” of the science, says the Soil Association.
Late last year, the UK government asked its Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) to review the latest evidence on food processing and health, in the light of a growing body of research linking high consumption of UPF to poor health outcomes and increased risk of developing cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Several national governments, including in France and Canada, have begun enacting a policy response to address ultra-processing – but the UK government is yet to act.
Yesterday, the Government published SACN’s findings and recommendations in a statement. While SACN acknowledges that studies “consistently reported that increased consumption of (ultra-) processed foods was associated with increased risks of adverse health outcomes”, it argues that “concerns” about the practicability of current UPF classification systems in a UK setting and its view that classification of some foods (including under the NOVA system) is “discordant with nutritional and other food-based classifications” limit their usefulness. But SACN goes further by questioning the plausibility of ‘extent of processing’ based food classification systems, claiming that they draw on “subjective concepts” such as ‘natural’, ‘wholesome’, ‘raw’, ‘artisanal’ and ‘mass produced’ and “do not adequately account for confounding factors or variables such as energy intake, body mass index, smoking and socioeconomic status”.” Rather than responding proactively on UPF (using an ‘evidence-informed’ approach as the Government’s former food tsar Henry Dimbleby has urged), SACN argues that the UK should instead keep the subject under review.
Responding to the statement, the Soil Association’s head of food policy, Rob Percival, said: “The sticky fingers of the ultra-processed food industry can be seen all over this position statement from the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). It is concerning that the committee has failed to acknowledge the need for precaution, given the rapid trend towards these foods dominating British children’s diets.
“While the committee acknowledges that a rapidly growing body of evidence has consistently associated ultra-processed foods with adverse health outcomes, they are guilty of losing the wood for the trees. Their suggestions for more research into health impacts are entirely sensible, but we don’t need another evidence review to conclude that our diets have become dangerously unbalanced.
“The government’s dietary guidelines recommend that adults and children should base their diets around minimally processed plant foods, such as vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and pulses. Most people in the UK are failing to eat such a diet, precisely because these foods have been displaced by ultra-processed products. The average child’s diet is more than 60% ultra-processed, and rates of obesity and ill health are rising sharply in turn.
“SACN is oddly silent on case for re-balancing the national diet and addressing the corporate capture of children’s food. We are disturbed that the committee’s conclusions may have been skewed by industry ties, conflicted financial interests, and a narrow framing of the science.”
The Soil Association says it welcomes the commitment by the committee to keeping the science under review, and the suggestion to revise the National Diet and Nutrition Survey to better gather data on intake of ultra-processed products across the UK. It says the Government should act on this recommendation and invest in further research to better understand the risks posed by ultra-processing. But the organic charity remains concerned about the influence of the food industry on this review, and government decision making.
Rob Percival added: “This review inadvertently plays into the hands of corporations who care more about profit than public health and this prompts us to look at composition of the committee. Across SACN, there are members with pronounced links* to the processed food industry including Coca Cola, McDonald’s, British Sugar and Cargill.
“These declared interests do not imply corruption or bias on the part of committee members, but they illustrate how pervasive are industry ties at the interface of science and policy. “Food companies have spent decades exploiting this contested space to frame the research and policy agendas reductively around nutrients and single food components, at the expense of the bigger picture. The science of ultra-processing challenges this narrow framing, inviting a shift in focus – rather than simply looking at nutrients we should be looking at foods, dietary patterns, and how the food system drives dietarily ill-health.
The Soil Association is calling for the government to focus on what it calls ‘no regrets’ actions at their fingertips:
• Dietary guidelines should be revised to promote the consumption of fresh and minimally processed foods.
• The marketing of ultra-processed snack foods to infants and children should be much more tightly regulated.
• As a priority, government should remove its endorsement of ultra-processed products on the NHS Food Scanner App.