Dr. Norah Campbell, Professor of Marketing at Trinity Business School, says that producers of ultra-processed food are making small changes, but what is needed is a revolution.
Sugar and spice are not necessarily nice
The results of a recent study on ultra-processed food appearing in Cell Metabolism magazine has scuttled the notion that “all calories are the same”. In the experiment, one group of people were fed ultra-processed food, another unprocessed food – their meals being matched precisely for calories, salt, sugar, fat and fibre. Logic tells us that no difference should occur, but despite this and in the space of two weeks, those on ultra-processed foods ate more and gained more weight. The findings mount support to other studies that link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, heart disease and early death.
It is not processing as such that is to blame. For most foods we eat require some levels of processing such as freezing or pasteurisation to ensure shelf life, food safety, and commercial viability. However, “ultra-processed” products have little or no intact “food” remaining, being assembled from already-processed matter such as potent sugars, modified oils and salts, as well as cosmetic processes such as emulsification, thickening and carbonating. As such, no longer really foods, they are better thought of as formulations.
Changing the formula – for healthy people or healthy profit?
‘One strategy to make ultra-processed products less harmful is to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats in them through what is known as “reformulation”,’ states Dr. Norah Campbell. This means redesigning an existing processed food product with the objective of making it healthier. For Campbell, reformulation could help if it had adequate scope and intensity – bolstering other sugar, salt and fat reduction strategies such as taxes or improved product labelling. ‘But while about a dozen countries have mandatory salt and trans-fat limits, none have set legal limits for sugar and saturated fats in foods.’
Since its appearance in the early 1980s, food reformulation has always been considered a “win-win” policy for large food brands, enabling them to compete for health-conscious consumers. But from the mid-2000s on, it has become a regular strategy for food companies seeking to avoid mandatory nutrient limits. Many governments throughout the world now collaborate with the food industry to reformulate ultra-processed foods – a recipe that has gained widespread and enthusiastic endorsement from senior policy makers.
The recent report by Food Drink Ireland, Reformulation and innovation: supporting Irish diets, is one such example. However, as part of the Trinity Research in Social Sciences (TRiSS) initiative, Prof. Campbell and her fellow researchers have found what they consider are selection biases, ecological fallacies and inappropriate study design that they argue make the conclusions about the benefits of industry-led reformulation in this report unsound. ‘Others have described how methodological weaknesses limit the policy “relevance” of similar industry reports,’ states Campbell. ‘In seeking to lead and influence national dietary strategies, the food industry promotes two consistent narratives: that reformulation is enormously difficult and expensive, and that it must happen slowly because consumers will react negatively to dramatic changes in taste.’
What’s wrong with industry-led reformulation?
According to Campbell and her colleagues, there are four serious dangers linked to industry-led reformulation. The first is that firms use reformulation as a PR strategy. ‘Because reformulation has been framed by industry as a series of voluntary commitments,’ states Campbell, ‘big food actors across the world give us the message that they are doing government and society at large a massive favour, while at the same time burnishing their corporate images.’ Voluntary food reformulation stymies faster progress towards the promotion of significantly healthier diets.
A second danger stems from the role that the food industry assumes in combatting obesity. ‘Industry-led reformulation stages the food industry as the saviour from our obesity problem,’ asserts Campbell. ‘It places them as a central authority which can speak reliably and legitimately about nutrition goals with governments. Food brands speak convincingly about how much sugar, salt or fat they extract from national diets. The Irish reformulation report for example, states that between 2005 and 2017, beverage companies removed 10 billion calories from the annual diets of the country’s 4.8m people. But it is silent about how many calories the companies are responsible for introducing to the diet in the first place. This mirrors industry development of low tar cigarettes, which were an ineffective, tokenistic industry-led solution to the public health crisis that smoking presented. In the same way, voluntary reformulation of unhealthy food products that are making so many of us sick risks delaying more substantive strategies to get rid of the most harmful products altogether.’
According to Campbell and her colleagues, the ultra-processed food industry plays a double strategy – reformulating existing products while adding more to the food system. ‘It is constantly creating new products such as cereal bars or “snackfections”, new formats which masquerade as portion control but actually increase snacking – bites, thins, share size, new eating occasions – like Domino’s World Pizza Day, or Cadbury’s Friendship Day – new category expansions ( biscuits for breakfast, meat snacks) and new retail and channel distribution innovations. Campbell points to a recent study by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which found that while there were indeed some decreases in the amount of salt and sugar in the category of “baby foods”, there were whole new classes of foods created for babies that it deemed “inappropriate”- that is, products that normalise snacking in babies and young infants. Says Campbell: ‘We need to measure not just reformulation at a product level, but how many new ultra-processed foods are being produced, to get a true picture of the changing food system.’
And lastly, a fourth danger lies hidden in status quo bias – that is, when a baseline is mistaken for a standard to strive towards. ‘The Irish reformulation strategy is a good example,’ affirms Prof. Campbell. ‘If Irish children are eating 101g of added sugar per day, it will take about 300 years to reach the recommended intake of 25g at current rates of decline. Such bias contributes to policy inertia, where it is imagined that the food system can be tinkered around with, rather than needing to be fundamentally revolutionised.’
All in all, Prof. Campbell and her fellow researchers believe that Industry-led reformulation has become a public relations strategy – a goodwill gesture that enhances the dominance and legitimacy of the ultra-processed food category rather than challenging the ultra-processed concept. As such, ultra-processing is inadvertently legitimated because attention is focused on changing the formulas of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods instead of working out ways to replace them altogether. For Prof. Campbell, a revolution in the food system is required – and this involves government action. ‘Some of the ways that governments might intervene include subsidies for fruits and vegetables, tax breaks for local food co-operatives and food growers, school and adult education,’ she asserts. ‘Ultimately, cultural norms need to change so that people have more time to think about what they eat – and to cook it.’
- View Dr. Campbell’s academic profile at TBS
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- View Dr. Campbell’s original article on the topic on the Trinity Business School website.
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