In a bold proposal that echoes public health initiatives against tobacco, a prominent nutritional scientist is calling for tobacco-style warning labels on ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

Professor Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo, who first coined the term ‘ultra-processed foods’, told The Guardian ahead of the conference at the International Congress on Obesity, “UPFs are increasing their share in and dominance of global diets, despite the risk they represent to health in terms of increasing the risk of multiple chronic diseases.”

“Public health campaigns are needed like those against tobacco to curb the dangers of UPFs,” Monteiro told the outlet in an email. “Such campaigns would include the health dangers of consumption of UPFs. “Advertisements for UPFs should also be banned or heavily restrictedand front-of-pack warnings should be introduced similar to those used for cigarette packs.”

This recommendation comes amid growing concerns about the health impacts of such highly engineered food products, which have become ubiquitous in modern diets. As obesity rates soar and diet-related diseases reach epidemic proportions, the push for more transparent labeling aims to empower consumers with immediate, visual information about the potential risks associated with these foods.

Ultra-processed foods and how they differ from minimally processed or whole foods

Dr Shruthi Badarinath Pranav, consultant paediatrics and paediatrics gastroenterology, Sparsh Hospital Bengaluru, says, “The distinction lies not merely in the act of processing but in the degree and nature thereof. Ultra-processed foods are industrial creations, formulated from a medley of substances often far removed from their original state.”

These concoctions often include ingredients not typically found in home kitchens:

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Cosmetic additives: Emulsifiers, sweeteners, Artificial colors and flavorsand preservatives, designed to enhance appearance, taste, and shelf life.

ultra-processed foods A prominent nutritional scientist is calling for tobacco-style warning labels on ultra-processed foods (UPFs). (Source: Freepik)

Refined ingredients: Stripped of their natural nutrients and fiber, refined sugars, fats, and starches provide empty calories with little nutritional value.

Novel ingredients: Born from industrial processes, substances like hydrolysed proteinsmaltodextrin, and high-fructose corn syrup raise concerns about their long-term health effects.

Dr Shruthi informs, “Combining these components often involves techniques such as extrusion, molding, and hydrogenation, further distancing UPFs from whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

Primary health concerns associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods

A mounting body of evidence paints a concerning picture regarding the regular consumption of UPFs, says Dr Shruthi:

*Obesity: Energy-dense, hyper-palatable, and engineered to encourage overeating, UPFs contribute to excessive calorie intake and subsequent weight gain.

*Type 2 diabetes: The high sugar and refined carbohydrate content disrupts blood sugar regulation, leading to insulin resistance and potentially diabetes.

*Cardiovascular disease: UPFs often harbor unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars, a dangerous trio for heart health, raising blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

*Cancer: Emerging research hints at a potential link between UPFs and certain cancers, with some additives and processing byproducts under scrutiny.

*All-cause mortality: Alarmingly, studies have observed a correlation between higher UPF intake and increased risk of death from all causes, underscoring their broad negative impact on health.

Could warning labels on ultra-processed foods, similar to those on tobacco products, prove effective in reducing their consumption?

Dr Shruthi says, “While research specific to UPFs is ongoing, lessons from tobacco control and other public health initiatives offer compelling evidence.”

These are:

Raising awareness: Graphic warnings vividly communicate health risks, prompting consumers to reconsider their choices.

Behavior modification: Studies on warning labels for sugary drinks show they can influence purchasing decisions and promote healthier alternatives.

Public sentiment: Surveys reveal significant public support for UPF warning labels, demonstrating a desire for greater transparency and informed decision-making.

Industry response: Faced with the prospect of negative labeling, food companies might be incentivized to reformulate products, resulting in healthier options for consumers.