Trans fats, salt and sugar reduction, ultra-processed foods and more food in the news

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is an old saying. One my father used to tell me. In my 71 years I have seen many changes. One thing that doesn’t change is the demonization of food additives.

Trans fats. In 2018 the FDA disallowed partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in processed foods. The ruling eliminated the presence of almost all trans fats in the American diet. Advocates promised us that the removal could prevent up to 20% of heart attacks and associated deaths. Has the media been keeping track of the reduction of heart attacks and deaths by this action of FDA? No. This month one story warned us about trans fats in our foods. Another article told us how to avoid partially hydrogenated oils in our diets. Hydrogenation of fats turned out to be a mistake. Once the dangers became clear, FDA started the process to eliminate them from the American food supply. Governmental agencies are slow, but they do make meaningful changes. The more things change . . . There may be some hope. The dangers of the infamous MSG are now being questioned.

bottle of Colavita canola oil
Trans fats are no longer in my canola oil.

Salt and sugar reduction. We learn of other dramatic health effects. If only government will act. Salt reduction in Britain promises to prevent 200,000 heart attacks a year by 2050! Sound familiar? Great news even if previous policy to reduce salt in the British diet has been unsuccessful. To achieve this goal the Brits will need stricter regulations. Are these numbers real? Will anyone be keeping track? Or will there be a constant flow of articles between now and 2050 saying that the British government needs to do more?

Sugar consumption is another media target. Last week CNN reported that  Giada De Laurentiis suffered from a sugar addiction early in her life. In the same morning newsletter I read an article on the tragic shootings of Asian women in Atlanta. The headline read “Sex addiction isn’t a medically recognized diagnosis.”  I applaud CNN for setting us straight. It would be nice if the media would assign the same qualifier to sugar addiction. It is not a medically recognized diagnosis either. Just saying.

Ultra-processed foods are back in the news. We can take some solace that the category of ultra-processed foods is so broad that not all of them are bad for us. But that is only one opinion from some academics. Elsewhere we learn that “Ultra-processed foods are everywhere. They are addictive, nutritionally void, and contain pro-inflammatory ingredients that we should avoid.” No mention of the addiction being “a not medically recognized diagnosis.” Foods formulated to treat specific digestive disorders are by definition ultra-processed. Are they nutritionally void? Are all of the products in this category without nutrients? Protein bars? High-fiber breakfast cereals? Plant-based meats? Breads? Fortified foods? If some additives present are pro-inflammatory, does that mean all additives are pro-inflammatory? We should not base science on gross exaggerations and over simplifications. Or should we? But wait, the news gets worse.

Ultra-processed products make up 58% of the American diet. These foods increase our chances for heart disease the latest study finds. The authors report, however, that consumption does not increase our chances of death unlike a previous study. WebMD warns us that even ‘healthy’ ultra-processed foods are dangerous! But how do they know? All foods with food additives find themselves in the ultra-processed class. Is a slice of whole-grain bread as unhealthy as a Twinkie? We have no way of knowing. Are they all a risk to heart health?

Are these large studies that find significant statistical relationships valid at all? Remember the Ontario hospital study and the effect of Zodiac signs on specific diseases? Condemning 58% of the diet doesn’t seem very precise. Would we accept a study that classified 58% of personal vehicles unsafe? Or an algorithm that suggested 58% of American movies damage mental health? These studies have enough data to point to a need for further research. But segmenting the food supply into two groups of 58% and 42% gives us no clarity. Researchers cannot test possible mechanisms until they subdivide the large class into smaller groups. They have the data. Why don’t they break the category into subgroups based on similar characteristics?

More natural and organic foods are in our future. It is a prediction by Food Business. Think that means more fresh, whole food? Think again. It means more natural and organic processed foods. The article also projects more plant-based meat alternatives. Last time I checked; these foods are all ultra-processed. Healthier for us? Maybe. Perceived as healthier by the public? Definitely. BTW, Food Business also predicts an increase in sales of other processed foods. Conventional is not as appealing or as marketable as natural and organic, though. Food Navigator reports that brand selection after the pandemic will be based on consistency of availability. Lowest price comes in second. Safety is a poor third. That is until there is an outbreak. Nothing about quality or flavor.

Fixing the country’s broken food system is the subject of a New York Times editorial. The author’s great-grandfather knew how to fix it. She indicates that we need to break up the multinational corporations. Let’s produce our food and distribute it locally. Many farmers lost their land in his day. Those who survived cooperated with each other and sent their crop to local canneries and milk to local creameries. She also mentions local slaughterhouses. The little town I grew up in had a local cannery and there were local creameries in adjacent towns. My family moved to a small city that had a local slaughterhouse. Most of those canneries, creameries, and slaughterhouses no longer exist. Part of the problem is an inability to meet stricter safety standards.

Where are the entrepreneurs coming from to build these small, local enterprises? Where is the capital coming from to build them? Where are all the growers going to come from to repopulate these farms? Where is the expertise available to ensure compliance with safety standards? Are people going to move from the big city or its suburbs back to small rural communities to fix the food system? Michael Bloomberg may think that anyone can be a farmer. To be a sustainable, profitable farmer takes intelligence, and both business and agricultural skills. It also takes hard work.

Cherry picking science articles continues to be a problem. When trying to support a predetermined point of view, it is not difficult to find a journal article to support it. A common trick is to lead into a topic with something like “At least one study . . .” As a practicing scientist I published about 100 refereed journal articles. Many of these were reports on studies conducted with students or colleagues. Some were review articles which brought together perspectives from many articles. I never considered any of the my published works to be definitive. Few published scientific articles are. A well-written review can provide a broader understanding. Finding a study that supports a point of view proves nothing. Understanding the scientific background is critical.

I reference very few scientific journal articles on these blog posts. They represent an alternative point of view on processed foods. My argument is not with the scientific literature. It is with the portrayal of processed foods in popular media. I point out flaws in the articles and books I read. I present alternative views that support my understanding of the underlying scientific understanding. I challenge gross oversimplifications that come across my screen.

When reporting on a scientific article, I read the whole article and critically evaluate it. It is important to view that article in context of other current literature in the field. When approaching a new topic, my preference is to read review articles and gain an overview of the topic. When writing my book, I modified my perspective on food addiction. My point of view on food sustainability changed during the process. Writing this blog has expanded my ideas on food justice. I now appreciate the importance of providing access to fresh foods in food deserts or swamps. Guest bloggers and commenters have also given me a fresh outlook on processed foods as well.

Next week: Black Food Matters and inequality in American food distribution

4 thoughts on “Trans fats, salt and sugar reduction, ultra-processed foods and more food in the news

  1. I’m a proponent of the NOVA food classification system and consider myself a Subject Matter Expert, however … Correlation is not causation. There are many good reasons to study the effects of a global shift in dietary patterns towards ultra-processed foods. But, immediate policy changes is not one of these good reasons in my opinion.

    Numerous studies from many countries have been done and we can now say with some degree of certainty that an association does exist between an increased consumption of ultra-processed foods and numerous negative health. Correlation may be established but causation remains unclear at this time. Correlation without causation is like one of those ink blot tests, an invitation to activists, marketeers, charlatans, and do-gooders to advance their own agendas using the correlation study as evidence to prove what ever point each wants to make. The research study referenced in the WebMD article is a case in point.

    Assuming there is harm in all foods that can be labeled ultra-processed foods even though the mechanism has not been identified becomes the justification of immediate corrective action. “If poor diet is a major modifiable risk factor for heart disease, it represents a critical target in prevention efforts”. And off we go again with policy reform, educational programs, labeling changes, and other well-intentioned initiatives

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    1. Points well taken! The major strength in the Framingham study is that they have a solid database that they have followed for years. I agree that the association of ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes has been established. Two problems, as you point out are equating correlation and causation and lumping anything that fits the criteria into an undifferentiated category. The other problem is the way that ultra-processed foods are classified as such in the first place. The presence of additives, all of which have been approved by the FDA, somehow makes all of these products unhealthy. Here’s hoping we can continue this dialog.

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