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Americans may soon get warnings about ultra-processed foods: Report [arstechnica.com]:
For the first time, health experts who develop the federal government's dietary guidelines for Americans [dietaryguidelines.gov] are reviewing the effects of ultra-processed foods [usda.gov] on the country's health—a review that could potentially lead to first-of-their-kind warnings or suggested limits in the upcoming 2025 guidance, The Washington Post reports [washingtonpost.com].
Such warning or limits would mark the first time that Americans would be advised to consider not just the basic nutritional components of foods, but also how their foods are processed.
Ultra-processed foods have garnered considerable negative attention in recent years. Dozens of observational studies have linked the food category to weight gain [nih.gov], obesity [nih.gov], cardiovascular disease [acc.org], cancer [thelancet.com], diabetes [nih.gov], and other chronic diseases, the Post notes. A small but landmark randomized controlled study in 2019 [cell.com], led by the National Institutes of Health's nutrition expert, Kevin Hall, found that when inpatient trial participants received diets with ultra-processed foods, they ate roughly 500 extra calories a day compared to a control group of inpatient participants who were served a diet that was matched in macronutrients but did not include ultra-processed foods.
"In conclusion, our data suggest that eliminating ultra-processed foods from the diet decreases energy intake and results in weight loss, whereas a diet with a large proportion of ultra-processed food increases energy intake and leads to weight gain," Hall and his co-authors wrote in the study.
Deirdre K. Tobias, a member of the guidelines advisory committee, told the Post that the study suggested ultra-processed foods seem to promote higher "passive intake" of calories beyond what our bodies need and that the numerous epidemiological studies suggesting a link between eating ultra-processed foods and having a higher risk of many diseases is "as compelling as it can be." She declined to comment directly on the upcoming guidelines, noting that the committee's work is underway.
The Post also notes that the food industry has strongly pushed back—writing directly to the committee telling them not to issue any warnings or limits. One key point of contention is that there is no exact or established definition of what counts as "ultra-processed." Generally, it is considered to include any industrially produced food product with artificial combinations of flavors and additives, such as artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and synthetic colors. Products that easily fit the definition include things like chips, frozen dinners, boxed sweetened cereals, chicken nuggets, and boxed macaroni and cheese.
Much to the dismay of nutrition experts, the National School Lunch Program allows its 30 million participating schools to serve products clearly in the ultra-processed food category, including Domino’s pizza, Lunchables, and Cheez-Its. Currently, the products must only meet the federal dietary guidance's standards for things like sodium, fat, protein, and whole grains—regardless of how many other additives they include.
The federal dietary guidance is updated every five years and developed by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Though the guidance that includes consideration of ultra-processed foods won't be released until 2025, the Post notes that the expert advisory committee is expected to issue a scientific report next year.