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Ultra-processed foods — ubiquitous, unhealthy and hard to spot

Industrially produced and packaged foods such as doughnuts are typical examples of ultra-processed foods, which science has shown are toxic to our systems. (Photo: Getty Images)

A recent study in SA found that nearly 80% of packaged foods in our grocery stores are ultra-processed. They are everywhere, but they aren’t easy for us to identify.

‘Human beings have been processing foods for centuries… to make it last longer, to make it taste better. The ultra-processed food undergoes these really chemically heavy processes… Wheat or soy, which doesn’t have a lot of market value, you can’t really do a big markup on selling that sort of raw product. 

“Companies come in and kind of manipulate chemically these foods to create really tasty but really bad for you, largely ready-to-eat… food products,” said Laura López González, a health journalist and editor, during a Daily Maverick webinar on Thursday. 

González was discussing the importance of having warning labels on the ultra-processed foods that have saturated our grocery stores with Maverick Citizen journalist Zukiswa Pikoli and Makoma Bopape, a lecturer at the University of Limpopo’s Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

A recent study in SA found that nearly 80% of packaged foods in our grocery stores are ultra-processed.  

They are everywhere, but aren’t easy to identify. 

“As a journalist coming into this topic… really being the average person… I don’t read nutrition labels. I can’t read them very well. I buy out of habit. I take probably seconds to make the purchases that I’m making at the store,” said González, describing what must be a typical consumer experience. 

But, as González discovered, and describes in a Daily Maverick article, ultra-processed foods are “cheap food loaded with fat, salt and sugar that allow companies to turn big profits”. 

Health industry experts are trying to push for warning labels so consumers know what they are buying.  

Pikoli said that researchers and the health department are looking into strategies that can be put in place to assist consumers in easily identifying ultra-processed products. 

She explained that front-of-package warning labels are designed to warn consumers that ultra-processed foods have added salt, saturated fats, sugars and non-sugar sweeteners, to make it easier for consumers to identify unhealthy products. 

These labels have simple pictures or icons that are easy to understand.  

“Several studies have been conducted in countries like Mexico, like Chile, and it has been found that compared to other forms of front-of-packet labels, consumers tended to understand nutritional information better when they use these labels as compared to other front-of labels.” 

In South Africa, which has a high prevalence of diabetes and hypertension and where cardiovascular disease is increasing, this type of warning is highly justified.  

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What has led to this? 

Pikoli said consumers are driving the demand for ultra-processed foods. 

“If you look at what is happening nowadays, because of urbanisation, because people are busy, because income levels are increasing, it becomes more convenient to quickly go for a packaged product, to go for something that will be ready to prepare.” 

And because South Africa doesn’t have a mandate for a warning label or mandatory label that dictates to the industry what qualifies as unhealthy, it is easy to produce what consumers spend money on.  

González said that the low cost of ultra-processed food is also a contributing factor. Research has shown that mothers have found their choices constrained because they cannot afford healthy food. 

A solution to this might be to subsidise whole foods — the good stuff. 

“I think people get really caught up in what the latest nutritional guidance is,” said González. 

“Nutritional advice really hasn’t changed in decades. If you eat more whole foods, that’s better for you. And it sort of works in the industry’s favour to kind of confuse us all the time. But I think that, obviously, whole foods right now are very expensive.” DM

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  • Food is a highly controversial subject, but I’m a supporter of a colour system on foods that indicate how calorie-dense a certain product is. Unfortunately, using the terms ‘ultra processed’ or even ‘ultra refined’ as the guide may not be the solution (arguably healthy sports nutrition supplements are considered ultra refined and processed)

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