Advertised food products: Why they should be bought and consumed with a pinch of salt 

Here's all about why and how to avoid ultra-processed products that are being passed off as food by aggressive and targeted marketing.

ByDr Arun Gupta

Published May 12, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated May 12, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Powdered infant formula could be harmful to your child. (Supplied)

There is no stopping them. It is a blitzkrieg, bombarding you with claims: In newspapers, on television, and all around, vying to win you over.

Advertisements of industrial food or drinks project them to be healthy, and the reader/viewer tends to trust them. They make claims, “healthy”, “building immunity” and several other assertions, mostly endorsed by popular film or sports personalities.

The exposure to such promotions is so high that they create a feeling of “want” in the consumer. It is marketing.

Most ultra-processed food (UPF) products are designed to be consumed in large quantities. Successful marketing translates into the increased consumption of UPFs.

Increased consumption of UPFs leads to overeating, obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart diseases, and cancers — all causing mortality. Hundreds of research publications around the world have confirmed the ill effects of UPFs.

Considering the adverse effects, the British Medical Journal demanded warning labels on foods that are not foods. It wrote about the troubles UPFs cause.

These products are industrially formulated and are mostly high in sugar, salt, or fats, when considering the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

Identifying UPFs

The UPFs contain emulsifiers, stabilisers, colouring, or flavouring agents to make them highly palatable — and profitable for the company.

Ultra processed food or UPF

Ultra processed food or UPF in a supermarket. (iStock)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss recently conducted an analysis. Here is his conclusion: “The flavour houses and their manufacturing clients might shave only pennies, and not dollars, off the cost of production in finding cheaper sources of everything else they use to make processed food, like those cyclotenes and lactones in pumpkin spice.”

“But the principle is unchanged. Any loss in excitement to the olfactory bulb is more than made up for by the thrill that the brain gets in saving money,” he added.

You can identify them in two ways by checking the list of ingredients. If the product has an ingredient that is not used in your kitchen, or if it contains five or more ingredients, they should alert you to UPF.

Examples of UPF include carbonated drinks, mass-produced bread, instant cereals, cookies, chips, fruit-flavoured drinks, instant noodles, confectioneries, ice cream, bakery products, energy bars, sweetened yogurts, pizzas, processed meat products, powdered infant formulas, etc. The list is endless.

Also read: Celebrities endorsing unhealthy products face the ire of parents, docs

Dr Tulleken’s findings

In a recent podcast in The Guardian, Dr Chris van Tulleken shared his personal experience, and narrated, How Did Ultra-Processed Foods Take Over, and What are They Doing to Us?

Dr Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor from London, spent a month on the UPF diet. He found three adverse effects:

  1. If he continued eating it for a whole year, his weight will double

  2. His hunger hormone remained high despite large meals

  3. A brain scan revealed it affected brain cells where habit and other pathways are automatically driven towards eating more, which he equated to addiction.

He shared the UK experience. India is no different when it comes to diet-related “pandemics” with the country reporting a rapid increase in obesity and type-2 diabetes.

Dr Tulleken felt that the marketing and the food industry’s interference in policy development led to the rise of UPFs.

Moss, in 2013, exposed the food industry’s key strategy to avoid criticism: Be a part of the solution.

A WHO report confirmed the effects of precision marketing. It “confirms that marketing of foods that contribute to unhealthy diets remains pervasive and persuasive and provides evidence that strengthens the rationale for action to restrict food marketing to which children are exposed”.

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India’s shift towards UPFs

Indian diets, though traditional, are massively shifting towards UPFs. The shift seems to be the major reason for diet-related diseases. I wonder if we should term them DRDs, or “socially-communicated diseases (SCDs)” and not non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Sophisticated and aggressive marketing has fuelled this shift.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story headlined, Pepsi’s New Healthy Diet: More Potato Chips and Soda on 23 April. The multinational food giant’s soft drinks, Doritos or chips, are neither “healthy” nor a “diet”.

It also reminds me of Coca-Cola’s “Share of Stomach” campaign. Coke’s former marketing chief Todd Putman slammed it after he realised its health risks.

It targeted young people and minorities (Hispanics and African Americans) and the key strategy was: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?” It achieved the desired result by making soda surpass milk — Putman recalled, swelling with pride.

“It did everything in their power,” he said “…resources, the scale, the intelligence, the strategy these companies use is intense. ..We need to take all that thinking… all that strategy and convert it — jujitsu it — to healthy products,” the Washington Post quoted him.

Advertising and marketing of UPFs in India are no different. These fake foods are projected as healthy, while hiding harmful ingredients. The food industry is present when policies are formulated to reduce the consumption of UPFs.

Existing regulations have not been able to stop the marketing or promotion of unhealthy food products. If we intend to bring down the consumption of UPFs; the government(s) and political parties should play a major role.

People can make informed decisions only if they could distinguish healthy foods from fake — the UPFs. It calls for Parliament to enact a law.

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Need to define ‘healthy food’

A clear definition of “healthy food” is the need of the hour to make consumers aware of what they are purchasing. Criteria may be established by an independent scientific committee under the Ministry of Health, devoid of any conflict of interest.

The criteria should be drawn up keeping the food industry, and the organisations they fund, at bay.

Israel has a clear-cut definition of healthy foods: “Foods in their natural form or with added spices or herbs, or those that underwent minimal processing, with no food additives.”

These could be fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, etc. Others declared unhealthy should have a mandatory warning label, depending on the level of processing and nutrients of concern — high sugar/salt/saturated fat, etc.

It is for political parties to act in the interest of the Right to Health envisaged by the Constitution. They can claim an advantage by highlighting that they are concerned about and taking action to control DRDs/SCDs.

The prime minister and chief ministers should direct the health ministers to act in this direction. Till then, let me come to you, the people directly, on how to control your purchases:

  1. AVOID if the food is designed by engineers and made in factories

  2. AVOID advertised food products, except raw food

  3. CHECK sugar and saturated fat levels. AVOID if it is more than 10 percent

  4. CHECK sodium. If more than 1mg/1K Cal, AVOID.

Sticking to this guideline can make a difference to your and your loved ones’ health and lives.

(The author, Dr Arun Gupta MD FIAP, is a Senior Pediatrician, and Convener, Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi). He is also a former member of the Prime Minister’s Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges).

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