The first scientific “umbrella review” of ultra-processed foods has been digested, or at least partially. Its publication last week continues to raise worry-inducing headlines – or at least for the general public

Authors writing in the BMJ examined 45 meta analyses and found that, “across the pooled analyses, greater exposure to ultra-processed foods… was consistently associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes”. It follows the results of a pan-European study showing most consumers fear UPFs are a health risk.

And if that weren’t damning enough, Boris Johnson has weighed in – literally – his bulging pot belly features prominently in the op-ed piece – writing in the Mail Online.

“I make a confident prediction: Big Food is shortly going to be in Big Trouble. People’s consciousness is being raised about UPF – and they want a choice,” writes Johnson, who wants UPFs to be announced “loudly on the front of the packet” similar to tobacco health warnings.

Boris Johnson on UPFs

Even the Sunday Times has joined in, with the provocative headline, “Ultra-processed foods: 9 things you should never buy again”.

Regardless of the factual underpinnings of each of these pieces, there’s no denying that yet again, UPFs are driving the news agenda. But the companies making and selling foods highlighted as UPF are at ease, judging at least by a recent webinar from The Grocer where a panel made the following points:

  • The definition of UPF is woolly
  • It’s more important to focus on nutrition than the degree of processing
  • Processing makes food shelf-stable – a good thing
  • There’s underwhelming consumer demand for industry to eliminate UPFs

All sensible, if rather predictable, arguments.

Take the first three bullets. The definition of UPF – definitions actually, for there are several – baffle consumers as well as industry, with a good degree of overlap between highly processed food and food high in fat, sugar and salt.

What is ultra-processed food? 

Ultra-processed foods are ubiquitous (ahead of Easter, you can’t move for hot cross buns, yet try finding a single one that’s not UPF). Industrial processes and long complex strings of ingredients keep products fresh for longer and help reduce environmentally destructive refrigeration, not to mention sinful food waste. 

Digging further into the final point: there’s currently underwhelming demand for change. In other words, companies aren’t about to undergo expensive reformulations just to cut out ingredients that some scientists only believe could be making people unhealthy.

Despite the buzz around the most recent UPF research, the findings that are relevant to industry are, for now, not in the scientific papers but in consumer surveys. According to data by the product intelligence platform Vypr, 29% of people are aware of UPF and 5% actively avoid ultra-processed products. In other words, there’s no need for companies to worry – not yet, at least.

But with more scientific studies drawing negative conclusions about the effects of ultra-processing on health outcomes, and vocal UPF critics including doctor Chris van Tulleken banging the drum, how long will it take for those percentages to rise? And is a bit more concern by industry maybe just what the doctor ordered?