Should ultra-processed foods come with tobacco-style health warnings?

File photo dated 09/07/14 of a pile of cheeseburgers. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), alcohol, tobacco and fossil fuels are killing 2.7 million people every year across Europe, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Experts said
Ultra-processed foods like cheeseburgers should be taxed, according to one expert. (Alamy)

An expert in nutrition has suggested that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) should come with tobacco-style warnings about the danger to people’s health.

Professor Carlos Monteiro, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, believes that a public health campaign should be promoted to raise awareness of eating too much unhealthy food. UPFs, such as ready meals, fizzy drinks, ice-cream and processed meats, tend to be higher in fat, saturated fat and sugar, while lower in fibre, protein and micronutrients.

Warning against the dangers of UPFs, Monteiro said that “both tobacco and UPFs cause numerous serious illnesses and premature mortality”. He argued that UPFs and tobaccos are “produced by transnational corporations” that invest their profits into “aggressive marketing strategies”.

However, some medics argue that comparing UPFs to cigarettes is “very simplistic” – and that more awareness should be placed on the amount of food consumed rather than the food itself.

Cigarettes and tobacco for sale in a corner shop in Liverpool in standardised packaging bearing graphic warnings of the dangers of smoking, as rules designed to prevent young people taking up the habit come into full effect this weekend. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)
Warnings like those seen on cigarette packets should be used for ultra-processed foods, professor Carlos Monteiro has said. (Getty)

Dr Hilda Mulrooney, reader in nutrition and health at London Metropolitan University, said: “We need a range of nutrients including fat, sugar and salt, and they have multiple functions in foods – structural, shelf-life – not just taste and flavour and hedonic properties.

“It is not as easy to reformulate some classes of foods to reduce them and they are not the same as tobacco because we need food – just not in the quantities most of us are consuming.”

Dr Duane Mellor, dietitian and spokesperson for British Dietetic Association, also argued that some processing was needed to stop food “from becoming contaminated”, resulting in illness and diseases like E.coli.

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As well as a call for health warnings, Monteiro wants further curbs on UPFs, especially for school children.

In schools and health facilities, Monteiro has called for a complete ban – or heavy restrictions – on UPFs, while arguing for heavy taxation. He says that the revenue generated from the higher-priced goods should be used to subsidise fresh food.

Monteiro’s previous work in the food industry has led to the creation of the Nova food classification system, which categories food and drink into four groups. They are:

  • Group 1: Unprocessed or natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish and eggs, as well as minimally processed foods like pasta, dried fruit and milk

  • Group 2: Processed cooking ingredients such as sugar, salt, butter and oil.

  • Group 3: Processed foods such as smoked meats or fish, bread and cheese.

  • Group 4: Ultra-processed foods such as ready meals, crisps, chocolate, sausages and fizzy drinks.

However, Mellor said that the Nova system is open to interpretation. He added: “Countries do need to work harder to support healthier diets in their populations, but we need suitable and objective ways of doing this.”