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Ultra-processed foods: Industry leaders want 'evidence-based' debate

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Business Leaders' Forum attendees discussed ultra-processed foods at length. Credit: Jim Winslet
Business Leaders' Forum attendees discussed ultra-processed foods at length. Credit: Jim Winslet
Senior figures from across the food and drink manufacturing sector discussed the growing conversation surrounding ultra-processed foods (UPFs) during a recent Business Leaders’ Forum session.

Convening in London on 13 June 2024 for the Business Leaders’ Forum, a collection of F&B bosses shared their thoughts on UPFs, their coverage in the media and how the industry can move forward for the better.

The sector has received criticism in recent weeks for failing to prevent obesity and allowing unhealthy foods to be marketed to children, with politicians and food scientists calling for new regulations to be introduced in order to protect public health.

Meanwhile, research is being conducted about the potential health risks of UPFs and certain substances included in the manufacturing process amid growing concerns among consumers about the nutritional content of everyday foods and beverages.

Holistic approach needed

To begin the discussion, several attendees agreed that action needed to be taken to ensure that the sector offered the tastiest and healthiest options possible, but argued that the debate should be conducted in accordance with scientific advice.

“The UPF conversation has been hijacked by the national media,”​ said one attendee, kicking off the discussion.

“Guideline daily amounts on packaging are there for a reason, as we need a certain amount of each category. We shouldn’t be demonising certain ingredients but instead need to look at the holistic picture of what humans need to consume.”

A fellow guest felt that a “lack of education”​ about nutrition was driving the debate: “A number of scientific bodies have not concluded one way or another on UPFs, but this debate has been propelled elsewhere. Too much emotional hyperbole in the media, not enough balanced evidence-based debate. Nuance has been taken out and this ends up with consumers being confused.”

This was a sentiment shared elsewhere in the room, with an attendee calling on the industry to work in order rebuild trust between manufacturers and the public.

“There is a huge disconnect between consumers and the production process​,” they explained.

“The public has very little trust in the industry which makes consumers sceptical about every ingredient that is included. Consumers don’t know the impact of each ingredient on factors such as structural integrity, shelf life and taste consistency.”

In order to rebuild trust, a fellow guest argued, the F&B industry needs to confront the UPF debate and provide honest and transparent guidance.

“We cannot ignore terms such as UPF because it so much in the zeitgeist, even if there is little agreement over its meaning or definition,”​ they said.

“People are suspicious of the food industry as we have a vested interest, so it is integral that we rebuild trust so that education is taken seriously and people are willing to listen.”

This was echoed elsewhere in the room: “We can never get away from social media and sensationalist reporting on topics such as UPFs. Therefore, we need to work around it.

“Also, the UK Government needs to take more responsibility to support healthy eating on a population wide basis, because as a food industry we cannot achieve this alone – especially with the conflicting messaging in the media and online.”

Change on the horizon?

With an election on the horizon this was not the only call for government action, even though there was a sense of frustration about the failure of past policies in the realm of health.

“Over my career in the sector we have seen 30 different policies designed to tackle obesity but they have all failed,”​ one attendee said.

Another added: “At time of an election, political parties are going to talk about crackdowns because it is something voters are concerned about.”

In order to counter this narrative, they suggested: “Science is not perfect and consumers are not perfect or uniform. We need patience and tolerance, which will allow us to find a sustainable and healthy solution. This issue cannot be resolved overnight.”

The attendee also called on the food and drink industry to communicate with consumers about healthy eating through their marketing campaigns.

“By showing consumers what responsible consumption looks like, we can drive change in small ways,”​ they continued.

This was echoed by other guests, with one calling for fellow leaders in the space to be prepared to “get on the front foot and cut through the populism”.

“As things stand, processed food is needed in order to feed the country and the food industry needs to stand up for itself,”​ they added.

“We need to be able to answer these questions with scientific backing and drive the conversation rather than allowing it to play out in the newspapers.”

“The industry, consumers and policymakers should be looking at unnecessarily processed ingredients,”​ chimed in another attendee.

“However, manufacturers are reliant on suppliers and how they source and create ingredients. There is too much cyclical change in the advice given and manufacturers are constantly having to adapt.”

One guest cautioned that while the industry needed to present a message based in scientific evidence, it faced a “huge challenge in delivering such a complex message”.

“Supermarkets could use technology to aid shoppers with the health breakdown of their trolley and this will make informed decisions easier,” ​another guest offered as a solution.

“Instead, consumers need to check every individual package and this is time intensive and unreasonable.”

A return to home cooking

Before concluding, the assembled leaders discussed the need to encourage more people to cook at home from scratch, a trend that could help reduce the amount of UPFs being consumed.

“More education is needed around cheap and quick scratch cooking, but we have attempted to use blogs and social media to raise awareness,”​ they said.

“Covid actually accentuated this as people were unable to eat out and instead switched to experimenting at home. Vegan options are often processed and contain a lot of preservatives, but more natural plant-based ingredients that can be cooked at home offer an alternative.”

This was echoed by a fellow guest, who also called on consumers to be given more support with “simple recipes and easy ways to cook at home that balance health with cost and time”.

Another attendee warned though that scratch cooking was not possible for everyone: “The cost of living crisis has restricted the ability of consumers to make informed choices due to the intense time and money pressures.

“Education around home cooking is good, but many people feel like they don’t have the time and resources.”

As you will have seen with the opinions voiced above, UPFs represent a thorny and complex topic. However, it is a crucial debate for the industry to resolve.

Events like Business Leaders’ Forum offer an ideal space for an honest and open discussion in the hope of finding a solution – so if you are a food/drink manufacturer and are keen to register and join in next time, you can do so here.​​

Thanks to our sponsors Amber, Aptean and TraceGains for their support and insight at this year’s event.

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