Canadians love their “ultra-processed” foods


This recent paper was brought to my attention by Yoni Freedhoff’s fantastic blog Weighty Matters last week.  (*BTW, if you’re at all interested in issues related to obesity, do yourself a favour and check it out!)

The paper highlights the huge extent to which Canadians rely on “ultra-processed” foods in their diets.  Using data from Statistics Canada’s 2001’s Food Expenditure Survey (FOODEX) researchers found that 62% of ALL the calories Canadians consume come from ultra-processed food and drink products.  Ultra-processed foods are defined as:

“…ready-to-consume/heat industry formulations manufactured from cheap ingredients directly extracted from whole foods, such as oils, fats, sucrose and flours, or processed from components extracted from whole foods such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, a variety of starches, and the cheap parts or remnants of meat. These products are typically added of several preservatives and cosmetic additives, with little or no content of whole foods…….Because of the nature of their formulation (including packaging), these products have a long shelf-life, dispense with culinary preparation and the need for dishes and cutlery, and are intensely palatable and appealing to the senses. They are typically energy-dense, with a high content in total, saturated and trans-fats, free sugars and Na, and little or no water, fibre, micronutrients and other protective bioactive compounds existing in whole foods. Marketing campaigns often overtly promote the compulsive consumption of these products including the use of ‘discounts’ for supersize servings.”

Obviously the findings of this study are pretty disappointing, if not unsurprising.  You don’t need to be a dietitian to understand that ultra-processed foods aren’t very good for you.  They’re high in calories, fats (particularly the bad ones), sugars and sodium.  And they promote the development of all sorts of chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.  Not exactly the types of foods you want making up two thirds of your diet.  It would be nice if we had a little more recent data, but considering that the current food environment is arguably worse than it was in 2001, I would expect that we probably eat even more ultra-processed foods today.

I found it interesting that the study compared its results to similar data from Brazil which showed that Brazilians only get 20% of their total calories from so called ultra-processed foods.  The authors suggest this is most likely due to the relative high cost of ultra-processed foods in Brazil.  I can’t seem to find similar pricing data from Egypt (it probably doesn’t exist), but at least from an anecdotal perspective, I can definitely say that ultra-processed foods tend to be quite expensive, yet unprocessed/minimally processed foods are relatively cheap.  As a result, we buy even less of them than we used to.

So if we want to reduce Canadians intake of ultra-processed foods, it would seem an effective strategy would be to target interventions that increase the price discrepancy between healthy and ultra-processed foods.

Anyone else think it might be time to consider a “junk food” tax?




  1. Mike · February 25, 2014

    I don’t think a “junk food” tax is the answer to this sort of problem. It’s best to address the underlying cause for the huge price discrepancy between ultra processed foods and real, whole foods. The main reason all of this junk is so cheap is because its raw materials are subsidized by Canadian tax payers. This ridiculous system is similar to many found in Western, developed nations. The biggest subsidies go towards nutritionally empty, easily processed crops like corn, soy, and wheat. Without these subsidies, heavily processed foods likely wouldn’t even exist in the food system, especially not at the prices they are sold nowadays. There simply wouldn’t be enough incentive for food manufacturers to produce them.

    • marcusoneill79 · February 26, 2014

      Thanks for the comment Mike. You make some interesting points. To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is. What I do know is that making healthy foods cheaper/ultra-processed foods more expensive will change overall eating patterns. Whatever way you get there is up for debate. I’m not however convinced that by reducing subsidies for heavily processed raw ingredients that food manufacturers will stop producing ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately there’s too much demand. Now, if removing (or at least reducing) these subsidies in turn caused price increases on ultra-processed foods, which I’m assuming it would, than maybe this indeed would be a good target too. Cheers!

      • Mike · March 3, 2014

        Hey Marcus, I definitely agree that there will continue to be market demand for highly processed foods due to their convenience and addictive qualities. What I meant to suggest, however, is that ending certain subsidies will naturally cause the price on highly processed junk foods to increase (unless the food industry is willing to take a huge hit in profits, which its likely not), which will almost inevitablly lead to at least some decrease in demand for those types of foods.
        I don’t think ending subsidies would solve the problem completely, but it’s a good start!

        Other ways to help improve the food system might be with *small*, tightly regulated subsidies–the current subsidization policy became problematic largely because of how expansive and vague it is–for certain, more nutritious crops (though the politics behind defining those crops would likely be another hugely contested debate as well!).

      • marcusoneill79 · March 4, 2014

        Yep completely agree Mike. I won’t hold my breath on governments making the right decision when it comes to these subsidies, but one can hope!

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