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Scientist Proposes Tobacco-Style Warnings for Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are increasingly dominating global diets, displacing healthier options and contributing to a rise in chronic diseases, according to Prof Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo, who coined the term. He argues that UPFs should carry tobacco-style warnings due to their significant health risks.

Monteiro, speaking ahead of the International Congress on Obesity in São Paulo, emphasized that UPFs pose substantial health risks, including obesity and diabetes, and are pushing aside less processed, healthier foods worldwide.

The consumption of UPFs such as cereals, protein bars, fizzy drinks, ready meals, and fast food is rapidly increasing globally. In countries like the UK and US, UPFs now make up over half of the average diet, with some demographics consuming up to 80% UPFs, particularly among younger, poorer, or disadvantaged groups.

A comprehensive review earlier this year linked UPFs to 32 adverse health effects, including heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, mental health issues, and premature death.

Monteiro introduced the term UPF 15 years ago as part of the Nova food classification system, which categorizes food based not only on nutritional content but also on the degree of processing it undergoes.

Expressing grave concerns about UPFs’ impact on public health, Monteiro suggests that mere studies and reviews are insufficient. He advocates for public health campaigns similar to those against tobacco, including bans or heavy restrictions on UPF advertisements and mandatory health warnings on packaging.

At the conference, Monteiro will propose banning UPFs from schools and health facilities, imposing high taxes on UPFs with revenue used to subsidize fresh foods, and highlighting the marketing strategies that make UPFs more convenient, affordable, and appealing than fresh meals.

Drawing parallels to tobacco, Monteiro notes similarities in the health risks posed by UPFs and the aggressive marketing tactics employed by multinational corporations that produce them. He argues that reformulation alone is inadequate, likening UPF and tobacco production as inherently pathogenic and profit-driven.

However, Dr. Hilda Mulrooney of London Metropolitan University cautions against oversimplifying the comparison to tobacco, noting the essential roles of nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt in food beyond taste. She highlights the complexity of reformulating food products and the necessity of a balanced approach to reducing their consumption.

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