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?