by Marion Nestle
May 31 2023

The pushback on ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods—defined operationally as industrially produced foods formulated to be irresistably delicious that can’t be made in home kitchens (because you don’t have the machinery or the ingredients—are by now well established to be associated with weight gain and weight-related chronic diseases.

Evidence now suggests the association is causal.  Ultra-processed diets induce people to eat more calories without realizing it.

Alas for food companies.  Ultra-processed products are among their most profitable.

The British Nutrition Foundation to the rescue!

  • It has issued a position statement on ultra-processed foods.   It complains that:
  • The classification system omits foods the Foundation considers healthy.
  • It implies that expensive artisanal products are superior for health (advice to reduce UPF raises questions of equity).
  • The research is largely observational.
  • The food environment is a key driver of poor health.
  • Making products that are not ultra-processed may have unintended consequences.
  • Demonizing ultra-processed foods could foster feelings of guilt and stigma.
  • Messages to avoid UPF might discourage industry from reformulation.
  • Food processing plays a releant role in food system sustainability and food security.

When I read things like this, I have the usual question: Who paid for this?

The British Nutrition Foundation says:

BNF’s funding comes from: membership subscriptions; donations and project grants from food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; contracts with government departments; conferences, publications and training; overseas projects; funding from grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities.

If it lists its corporate sponsors, I can’t find it.

But PowerBase says:

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) is the key food industry front group in the UK. The BNF promotes itself as a source of impartial information, but it does not always make its links with industry clear.

The BNF is hard at work on behalf of food companies who wish the entire UPF concept would just disappear.  See, for example, “How do we differentiate not demonise –Is there a role for healthier processed foods in an age of food insecurity? Proceedings of a roundtable event” published in the Nutrition Bulletin.  The themes that emerged from the conference:

  • problems with the use of definitions for UPF,
  • the lack of causal evidence and defined mechanisms linking processing per se with poor health outcomes,
  • advice that may result in consumer confusion.
  • misalignment of UPF foods with dietary guidelines
  • unintended consequences for vulnerable groups


OK, the food industry is fighting back.  I think it’s a losing battle.  The UPF concept has so much evidence backing up its usefulness.  But I will say one thing about the point about unintended consequences.   It’s OK for rich people to avoid UPF but OK for poor people to eat them?  I think the food industry is in trouble on this one.  It has gotten away with pushing junk food for way too long.  The British Nutrition Foundation would be much more crredible if it put public health first.