Ultra-processed food should come with a warning label due to the dangers it poses to our health, a doctor says.
Dr Chris van Tulleken called for the move after recent studies linked eating ultra-processed food (UPF) to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.
UPF — a category which includes items such as biscuits, crips and breakfast cereals — forms more than half of the average British diet.
The author of Ultra-Processed People told MailOnline the new studies added weight to calls for a warning label system in the UK to ward people away from eating them.
Here MailOnline sets out all the ways that campaigners are proposing to wean Britain off its UPF addiction.
Experts are calling for stark warning labels to be slapped onto ultra-processed food to ward Brits off eating them
Some experts have called for UPFs to be slapped with a warning label to help Brits identify and avoid them at the supermarket.
The UK already uses a traffic light system on food labels which warns people of high fat and salt content with amber and red colours.
But campaigners want something simpler for UPFs.
Dr van Tulleken told MailOnline Brits needed a stark, easily identifiable, warning on packaging.
WHAT ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS?
Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar and salt, low in protein and fibre and contain artificial colourings, sweeteners and preservatives.
The term covers food that contains ingredients that a person wouldn’t add when cooking at home — such as chemicals, colourings and preservatives.
Ready meals, ice cream, sausages, deep-fried chicken and ketchup are some of the best-loved examples.
They are different to processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their taste, such as cured meat, cheese and fresh bread.
Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, biscuits and fizzy drinks, are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives.
They contain little or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds and eggs.
The foods are usually packed with sugars, oils, fats and salt, as well as additives, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilisers.
Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-consume, taste good and are cheap.
Source: Open Food Facts
‘We need warning labels on packets – not the confusing and optional traffic lights but a single black label indicating UPF,’ he said.
The infectious diseases doctor said other countries were already using similar system with some success.
‘Chile and Mexico have done this using effective black hexagons,’ he said.
‘When packages are labelled properly we have evidence that children ask their parents to buy different food just like we told our parents to quit smoking.’
Another method being touted to help ward off Brits from UPFs is restricting advertisements.
The Government is planning to introduce a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm, a move that, while not specifically targeting UPFs, would include many ready meals which are high in fat, salt and sugar.
This ban was originally due to be brought in October this year, but was delayed until 2025, a move condemned by campaigners.
Campaigners like Dr van Tulleken have called for even stronger bans for UPFs, especially for those for children.
‘We need to stop all marketing of UPF especially the use of cartoon characters to market these products to children,’ he said.
Food charities have issued similar demands, with the Soil Association’s, head of food policy Rob Percival also called for increased regulation.
‘The problem is simply too big to ignore – UPFs already make up almost two-thirds of the diets of British children,’ he said.
‘We want to see advertising for UPFs restricted and targets set for their reduction – these have been introduced in many countries.’
Some US researchers have called for restrictions on advertising UPFs to children in the same vein as cigarettes.
These experts said some UPFs could be considered addicting substances due to their high amounts of unnatural flavourings, preservatives and sweeteners.
Nutritionists split food into three groups based on the amount of processing they have gone through. Minimally processed foods, like apples, are usually exactly how they appear in nature. Processed foods, like apple sauce, have gone through at least one level of processing that has changed their original form. In contrast, ultra-processed foods like apple jelly babies, have gone through multiple levels of processing and are usually full of extra fats, colours and preservatives
Few campaigners have called for a total ban on UPFs, with many acknowledging the reality that they offer a cheaper source of food amid the cost-of living crisis.
But some have called for some ingredients used in ultra-processed foods to be banned which would, in theory, make them healthier.
One such campaign involves the use of preservative called nitrite.
Nitrite is chemical used to extend the shelf-life of some hams, sausages and other reconstituted meat products.
Consumption of the chemical has been linked with an increased risk of cancer, prompting some experts to call for a ban on its use in Britain.
Nitrite-free options of many processed meats are available in some British supermarkets.
Junk food tax
While a junk food tax wouldn’t cover all UPFs, many like ready meals, would be included due to their high quantities of added salt, sugar and fat.
A junk food or ‘snack tax’ was proposed by Government food adviser and co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain Henry Dimbleby back in July 2021.
It was aimed to help Britain’s battle against obesity, with an estimated 64 per cent of British adults now too fat.
But the policy, which was predicted to add £60-per-year to each person’s food bill on average, was ditched by Government the following year.
Mr Dimbleby has since resigned from his role, citing a lack of appetite within Government for necessary changes.
He has warned the current prevalence of ultra-processed foods in British diets mean the nation is storing up problems for the future.
‘If we do nothing, a tidal wave of harm will hit the NHS,’ he said.
Some experts argue hitting UPFs with increased regulation isn’t enough.
They claim that without incentives to keep the cost of fresh food down the UPF regulation would simply hit the poorest Brits the hardest as products become more expensive.
Instead, they advocate for a carrot rather than stick approach.
Professor Devi Sridhar, an expert in public health from the University of Edinburgh, have advocated for subsides for fresh produce.
This she claims will bring the cost of eating healthy down for many Brits, helping end their reliance on UPFs.