Against ultra-processed foods

The industrial system that determines the food supply and dietary patterns of the population around the world today is broken. This is my conclusion after seven and a half years as Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Such a system is the cause of what has become a global epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases that have devastating effects on human health and life. Despite technical advances, the system has also failed miserably to reduce the global burden of dietary deficiencies: more than 820 million people are still hungry. It is also contributing to the depletion of natural resources and the impoverishment of rural populations in low-income countries, including the hundreds of millions of family farmers who supply most of the food consumed in the world,

But this crisis not only impoverishes the populations of low-income countries. Obesity, the rest of forms of malnutrition and its consequences are out of control in almost all developing and developed countries.

FAO has just published an analysis on Ultra-processed food, diet quality and human health. The paper sets out the results of population studies initiated in Brazil, a very large country where obesity rates have increased rapidly since the 1980s. The work has been carried out by a team from the School of Public Health of the University of Sao Paulo led by Professor Carlos Monteiro. Their findings are supported by more than 80 published studies, conducted in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Chile, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and Lebanon, whose results are consistent and have been supported by the findings of a randomized controlled trial conducted by the prestigious U.S. National Instituteof health

All this research shows, as stated in the report, is that, in terms of nutrition and public health, today the most important thing is what is done with food after separating it from nature and before it is prepared and consumed. Specifically, the nature, scope and purpose of food processing,

Regulation in food systems is needed; it should be global, but it can take many forms

Studies show that displacing unprocessed or minimally processed foods and home-cooked meals in favor of ultra-processed food products prepared to eat or heat directly leads to a profound deterioration in diet quality and at an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cholesterol, heart attacks, hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, general and breast cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, asthma, fragility in the elderly and also death premature,

I first met this job in 2014, when the Brazilian federal government published the new official national dietary guidelines. As explained in Food systems and diets: tackling the challenges of the 21st century, a 2016 report produced by a panel of experts of which I was a member.

The Food Guide of Brazil recommends that high quality diets contain minimal amounts of ultra-processed foods. The term ultraprocessed was coined to refer to industrial formulations manufactured from substances derived from food or synthesized from other organic sources. They usually contain few or no whole foods, are easy to consume or heat, are high in fat, salt or sugar, and are poor in dietary fibers, proteins, micronutrients and other healthy compounds. Examples include: snacks, ice cream, sugary drinks, chocolates, confectionery, pastries, fries, burgers and hot dogs, and nuggets chicken and fish.

The report we just presented provides a complete list of ultra-processed foods and provides a practical guide to identifying them based on your ingredient list.

There is no time to waste: In 2000, sales of ultra-processed foods and beverages in middle-income countries accounted for one-third of those of high-income countries. Fifteen years later, they were more than half. The sale of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks has skyrocketed. This growth is particularly significant in low- and middle-income countries, and sales in Southeast Asia are expected to approach those of high-income countries by 2035.

The lesson we must learn now and always apply is that regulation is needed in food systems that should be global, but it can take many forms. Subsidies should be withdrawn from producers and manufacturers of ultra-processed food and its ingredients, and given instead to family farmers, their cooperatives and other processors who grow, distribute and sell unprocessed or minimally prosecuted. Taxes should be applied to ultra-processed food products and we must encourage programs in schools and communities designed to enable the acquisition, preparation and enjoyment of freshly prepared home-cooked meals. And it may be that healthy staple foods are available at prices that everyone can afford


I am not suggesting that global food supplies be transformed only by drastically reducing the manufacture and consumption of ultra-processed foods. But I do think this is an essential part of a global Zero Obesity plan. We're at a critical moment that requires radical action,