WASHINGTON — The food industry is anxious that regulators are focusing too much on the health impacts of so-called ultra-processed foods, the popular, ill-defined food group that includes everything from hot dogs and chicken nuggets to cookies and potato chips.
Frozen food makers and the meat industry on Tuesday, speaking to a panel of nutrition experts tasked by the federal government with advising on the next round of the national dietary guidelines, raised concerns with its focus on that fare. So too did a coalition that includes the bakery, candy, corn syrup, and sugar lobbies, and the Consumer Brands Association, which includes General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Hostess.
Federal regulators announced last April that the nutrition panel, which reviews the latest nutrition research and recommends changes to national dietary guidelines every five years, would examine the relationship between ultra-processed foods and weight gain as part of its review.
To some, the review seemed prudent, if not overdue. Multiple studies have found that ultra-processed foods make up more than half of Americans’ calorie consumption. Clinical studies have also tied ultra-processed foods to a variety of negative health outcomes, including cognitive decline, weight gain, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes.
But the North American Meat Institute, which represents companies like Hormel and Johnsonville, said Tuesday that “the scientific evaluation of the role of ultra-processed foods in health outcomes is premature” and that “classifying foods as ultra-processed oversimplifies the complex issue and is not appropriate for the dietary guidelines.”
Several food industry speakers instead argued that the committee should praise the impact of food processing.
“Food processing can provide benefits to products including food safety and security, improved nutrition, reducing food waste, permitting food diversity, and offering convenience and affordability,” said Allison Cooke, a vice president at the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of corn syrup and other corn products. Cooke was representing the food coalition, the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance, which the corn refiners group chairs.
The pushback was one of the clearest examples of the debate playing around around the world regarding how to address ultra-processed foods. Countries from Brazil to the Nordic nations have also considered whether they should recommend limits on that consumption. The debate is especially tricky because the most commonly used classification system for ultra processed foods, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, has been criticized as overly broad.
Soy Nutrition Institute Global, which represents soy food companies, for example, raised concerns Tuesday that foods like tofu could be considered ultra-processed.
“The idea that tofu, a food that has been consumed for centuries, warrants the same … classification as Twinkies defies common sense,” said Mark Messina, director of nutrition science and research for the group.
The sugar association had its own advice for the nutrition panel, although it did not address the ultra-processing debate. Instead, it emphasized that “evidence shows that a singular focus on sugar reduction over the past twenty years has not reduced obesity.”
It’s unclear how or whether any of the public comments will ultimately sway the panels’ recommendations, which will not be released until late next year.
The debate over ultra-processed foods wasn’t the only hot-button issue debated Tuesday. Much of the rest of Tuesday’s meeting was spent in an extended back and forth between advocates for plant-based diets and individuals from the meat and dairy industries.
In one instance, a dairy farmer and dietician argued that “dairy foods make a positive impact on healthy living.” She was followed by a former Olympian who argued that the dietary guidelines’ current focus on consuming dairy is “culturally insensitive and even racist,” since a majority of Black Americans are considered lactose intolerant.
“We are no longer a country made up of exclusively genetically mutated white people who can digest dairy,” said Dotsie Bausch, a former Olympic cyclist.
In another back and forth, a physician proponent of plant-based diets argued that Americans consume far more protein than is necessary. He was followed by a representative of the National Pork Board arguing that pork can “enrich the diets of those who may not be able to get nutrient-dense meals.”
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