Is it time to discontinue the Nutrition Facts panel on processed food?

cartons of almond milk and cow's milk
Nut milk or dairy–ultra-processed or just processed?

Numerous articles are warning us of the health consequences of consuming ultra-processed foods. Earlier this month, I reviewed the study by NIH that has provided a direct link to weight gain, and, thus, obesity. Nutritionists from both the classical side of the street and those in public health nutrition are cautioning us against consuming ultra-processed products. Last week I provided some insight at how much of our food supply is ultra-processed. This week I describe some major implications associated with a successful campaign to greatly decrease consumption of ultra-processed foods. One potential unintended consequence could be the death of the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts statement.

The end of the Nutrition Facts statement. Although they seem like they have been around forever, the familiar Nutrition Facts panel did not make its debut until 1993 as part of the implementation of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). Why would we want to get rid of it? Because nutrients no longer seem to matter, even to nutritionists. All that seems to matter is that a food is ultra-processed and thus unhealthy or minimally processed or homemade from whole foods and approved culinary ingredients making it healthy. Articles on food posted on the internet or longer versions in book form focus on the ingredient statement and not on Nutrition Facts. It is the ingredient statement where problems emerge—six or more is not good, hard-to-pronounce ingredients are not good, and chemicals are not good. If a food is deemed ultra-processed it is considered unhealthy. Any nutrients present can be discounted.

The advantage of the ultra-processed classification is that it takes out any guesswork—it is reduced to a binary choice—healthy or not healthy. The only information that would be needed could be on the front of the label—amount of added sugar and amount of sodium for anyone wishing to delve deeper into just how bad this particular product could be. Remember, ultra-processing has nothing to do with how it has been processed or how much it has been processed. It is only about the ingredients. The four subgroups of ultra-processed foods are junk foods (high calorie/low nutrients), convenience (more than five ingredients including food additives), functional (added nutrients to address a specific health issue), and distilled spirits (no more mixed drinks). I contend that the NOVA classification scheme has oversimplified dietary problems. If we continue to adopt this set of principles, however, declaration of nutrients on the label becomes superfluous.

Nutrition Facts for two fresh meals
Two Hello Fresh meals that have sufficient ingredients to be considered ultra-processed

Black warning labels. As I was planning this post in my mind I thought about preparing some warning labels about ultra-processed food. Then, Dr. Katherine Witrick from the Department of Animal Science, Food & Nutrition at Southern Illinois University sent me a text message from IFT earlier this month about an oral session on NOVA and ultra-processed products. She informed me that there are such warning labels already in use. Chile, for example, has developed black labels on packaged, processed foods to warn potential consumers if a product exceeds specific levels of fat, sugar, sodium or calories per 100 grams. Other countries will probably follow suit. I see merit in limits in these four areas. Dried foods will be at a distinct disadvantage, but there will need to be a benchmark. What bothers me is that such labels could go much further to warn us about specific additives in food products. What I will object to is a label such as a link of one to a specific disease based on lack of conclusive scientific evidence.

Celebrate the 4th of July ultra-processed free! To ensure a healthy and happy 4th, should Americans avoid serving or consuming cakes including those made from mixes, hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream, pizza, potato chips, and any sandwich made from bread bought in a supermarket? Alternatives include thick, juicy steaks; grilled chicken; corn on the cob, homemade sugar cookies; baked potatoes; and any pies homemade from scratch. Alternatives to ultra-processed foods require some thought and changes in attitude. Americans are resilient, but they don’t like to be told what to do or what to eat. As long as ultra-processed is a fuzzy term like natural and obesity, there probably will not be much pushback. If the American public realizes how broad the category of ultra-processed foods is, these guidelines might initiate a backlash.

Fresh steak meal
A whole food alternative to pizza or hamburger–be careful of the topping on that sweet potato!

Food scientists, nutritionists and dietitians of the world unite. I believe in nutrients, even though much of popular dietary advice seems to be migrating to avoidance of ultra-processed foods. I am not a fan of marketing that highlights single nutrients without putting a product into context, but the idea of designating a large portion of the American food supply as unhealthy does not appear to be useful, either.

I received my MS in Food Science from the University of Florida and my PhD in the field from the University of Massachusetts. Each department included both food science and nutrition programs. There were some strong cultural differences between students from the two disciplines, but we talked to each other and respected each other’s points of view even when we did not agree. This past February I went back to Gainesville to present a seminar in defense of processed food. I found it sad that there seems to be little dialog between the two programs ostensibly housed in the same building. Both fields lose out. Food scientists today fail to appreciate the importance of nutrition or dietetics, and nutritionists tend to have even less an appreciation of food science. What a shame!

Nutrition Facts for whole wheat cereals
Are the nutrients in ultra-processed, whole-wheat breakfast cereals no longer useful?

In my readings about food in popular books and media, I keep coming across the term “self-taught” nutritionist as the entire field of nutrition could gradually become as suspect as the field of food science. I contend that we need each other if we wish to continue to have any say in food policy. Food scientists need to call out the industry when it is intransigent and irresponsible. Concerns about excess calories, salt and sugar should be addressed. Likewise, nutritionists and dietitians need to carefully study the scope of what NOVA classifies an ultra-processed food. Do we really want to discourage consumers from eating whole grains if they come in a product with more than five ingredients or any unpronounceable ones like BHT? Are the saturated fats in ground beef OK and preferable to lower levels in plant-based or cultured meats? Are bacon and ham acceptable, but hot dogs and bologna unacceptable? Do dietitians need to design meal plans away from all ultra-processed foods? What about consumers that lack the finances, access, facilities or cooking skills to take advantage of a fully unprocessed diet?

Bottom line.  I am old enough to remember how hard nutritionists fought Big Food to get the Nutrition Facts statements on processed foods. Food scientists were largely opposed to them. Now the tables are turning. Nutritionists seem to be more willing to caution against consumption of ultra-processed foods. If it is that easy to categorize foods into ultra-processed: unhealthy and unprocessed: healthy, then nutrients present in an ultra-processed product become meaningless. Food scientists like me consider the lumping together of junk foods, convenience foods, functional foods and distilled spirits into a single ultra-category to be unwise. We long for the good old days when Nutrition Facts were meaningful. All that really counts now is the ingredient statement—the fewer ingredients the better and the easier to pronounce the safer. Is that the best path to health and wellbeing? I do not think so.

Next week: Seven misleading and three rational statements about ultra-processed foods.



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