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Opinion: 'ultra-processed' categorisation of foods is emotive, simplistic, meaningless

A New Zealand health academic has presented research that she says demonstrates that our food industry and our supermarket chains are subjecting New Zealand consumers to a "large exposure of unhealthy food products".

The new study looked at packaged foods taken from four major supermarkets in Auckland in 2011 (just over 6000 products) and 2013 (13,406 products).

Study author Dr Wilma Waterlander, of the University of Auckland's School of Population Health, said results found up to 84 per cent (in 2011) and 83 per cent (2013) of packaged foods in supermarkets fell under the "ultra-processed" category.

The study uses its own terminology to categorise packaged foods - "minimally processed" (eg., fruit and vegetables), "culinary processed" (eg., flour, plain noodles, milk and oils), and "ultra-processed" (all other processed foods).

The report un-scientifically describes "ultra-processed" foods as "foods that have been altered by sweeteners, salt and fat; turning them into products sometimes almost unrecognisable from the original items".

In a sweeping generalisation, it claims that as a category, these foods are unhealthy, and that supermarkets should be restricting access to them, promoting  healthy, minimally processsed foods instead.

It is a hugely simplistic categorisation. Setting aside the use of the highly emotive term "ultra-processed", in terms of naturalness or healthiness, there is no logic in lumping all processed foods together. Some are highly processed, some are hardly altered at all; some are highly nutritional, some are quite unashamedly unhealthy.

The generalisation also ignores the concept of shelf stability.

Fresh or chilled food is great - but most of us need the odd loaf of bread, can of tomatoes, packet of breakfast cereal, or bottle of sauce, as there aren't enough hours in the day to make everything from scratch. We need the convenience of foods that will keep safely at room temperature in the pantry until we need them - ie., shelf stable.

To make foods shelf-stable, they have to be processed  - dried, frozen, cooked, pickled, or preserved by reducing water activity and/or oxygen activity - and packaged appropriately.

Take jams for example. Ultra-processed? In fact, they undergo a simple, traditional process, boiling fruit in sugar, to reduce the amount of water present to a level that the product will not allow the growth of moulds and yeasts - ie., preserve, or make shelf-stable.

Yes, jams have high levels of sugar - by definition they have to. Does this make them unhealthy? No.

The categorisation makes no analysis of why an ingredient, eg., salt, is used in the food, and what function it performs.

The study also comes to the conclusion that the lack of price differential between minimally processed and ultra-processed foods encourages consumers to purchase the more highly-processed, unhealthy options - again, ignoring the functional distinction between fresh and packaged foods.

Once again the academics have taken the position that consumers cannot distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food, and that we need to be protected from our own ignorance.

Sugar taxes, fat taxes, and only recently, our health academics suggested taxes on everyday foods such as eggs and milk, in an attempt to make us eat more healthy foods.

Now, by bundling all processed foods into the 'unhealthy" basket, and suggesting that the supermarkets should cut down how much they sell to us, they make even less common sense, and seriously risk their own credibility in the process.

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