Processed food manufacturers pose as big a risk to public health as cigarette firms, a leading food expert has warned.
Dr Chris van Tulleken, associate professor at University College London, said the mass-produced food industry was acting in a similar way to ‘Big Tobacco’ companies by selling addictive products which could be harmful.
He claimed major food producers were putting the pursuit of profits above public health, especially when marketing snacks and processed foods to children.
‘These companies are using the same techniques as tobacco firms to create and then market addictive food, especially to children,’ he said.
‘Poor diet has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death globally – and poor diet means an ultra-processed diet.’
Dr Chris van Tulleken (pictured in June), associate professor at University College London , said the mass-produced food industry was acting in a similar way to ‘Big Tobacco’ companies by selling addictive products which could be harmful. He claimed major food producers were putting the pursuit of profits above public health, especially when marketing snacks and processed foods to children
Tobacco use in the UK generates £10billion for the taxpayer but is estimated cost to society £17billion. Smoking rates have declined to just 12.9 per cent in recent years while obesity has soared to 65.5 per cent. Government estimates put the cost of obesity at £27billion per year, thought other estimates have put the figure much higher
Ultra-processed foods go through multiple processes during manufacturing, are often high in salt and sugar, and contain additives, emulsifiers and preservatives.
They are typically lacking in fibre and nutrients but are high in calories.
Most junk food is ultra-processed, including ready meals, frozen pizzas, shop-bought cakes and potato-based snacks.
But many foods which have traditionally been considered ‘healthy’ are also ultra-processed, including supermarket sliced bread and ‘diet’ foods and drinks.
The UK is one of the world’s biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods, which account for more than half of the calories eaten by the average British adult and two-thirds of the average energy intake of children under five years old.
Speaking at the Unicef UK Baby-Friendly Initiative Conference in Harrogate last month, Dr van Tulleken said: ‘We have a real crisis of industrialised, processed foods being marketing to children… We are sure that these foods have addictive properties for both children and adults.’
Research has shown foods which are ultra-processed, including children’s snacks, can be more addictive than Class A drugs.
Up to one in seven adults and one in eight children are believed to be hooked on these foods, according to an analysis of 281 studies published in the BMJ.
Previous studies have linked eating high levels of ultra-processed foods with a range of health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
An analysis of deaths in 195 countries, published in The Lancet in 2019, found poor diet is now responsible for more deaths worldwide than tobacco.
The study, led by the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, found poor diet was responsible for 10.9million deaths globally in 2017, compared with eight million for tobacco. Tobacco companies have a long history of interest in mass-produced foods.
American cigarette makers Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds owned some of the world’s biggest food manufacturers, including General Foods, Kraft and Nabisco, from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, during which time there was a surge in worldwide consumption of ultra-processed foods.
The companies — now merged as Kraft Heinz — continue to sell Heinz baby food and snacks, as well as popular brands like Heinz beans, Philadelphia cheese spread and Capri-Sun drinks.
The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, splits food into four groups based on the amount of processing it has gone through. Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs and meat. Processed culinary ingredients — which are usually not eaten alone — include oils, butter, sugar and salt
‘It’s not just that these [food manufacturers] are comparable to tobacco companies, they were the tobacco companies,’ Dr van Tulleken added.
‘The tobacco industry used its knowledge about flavour and marketing to create and market addictive food, especially to children.’
A spokesman for The Food and Drink Federation, which represents the food industry, said: ‘Over a number of years, we have invested a great deal in changing the recipes of our products to remove fat, sugar and salt and to add more fibre, fruit and vegetables.
‘We’ve also reduced portion sizes and launched new, healthier products.’
The Department for Health and Social Care said it had introduced calorie labelling in restaurants and required pre-packaged foods to carry ‘a variety of information to aid shoppers — including a list of ingredients and nutritional data’.
A government spokesman said: ‘We are taking strong action to encourage healthier food choices and to tackle obesity — recognising that it is the second biggest cause of cancer and costs the NHS around £6.5billion a year — while respecting the importance of individual choice.’