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Ultra-processed Food

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the latest research into the effects of ultra-processed food on the mental and physical health of children and adults; and whether they plan to introduce any further restrictions on these foodstuffs.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition did not find evidence for a causal link between ultra-processed food and mental and physical health. It is unclear whether ultra-processed foods are inherently unhealthy, or whether it is more that those foods are typically high in calories, saturated fat, salt, and sugar. Therefore, the Government’s priority is continued action to reduce the consumption of foods high in calories, salt, sugar and saturated fat.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer, but I beg to disagree. The latest scientific evidence indeed shows that ultra-processed food, which is, in essence, not really food given that ordinary foodstuffs have been put through industrial processes that render them chemically different from what they were when they began, has had a massive impact on the nation’s health, especially in the past 30 years. Some 66% of our diet is ultra-processed food, and 16% of everything we eat every day goes to our brain. It seems to be no coincidence that instances of heart disease, cancer, obesity and many other illnesses, as well as mental illnesses, might have something to do with the food that we are eating, the fuel that we are putting in our cars. No noble Lord in this House would put Coca-Cola in his Rolls-Royce and expect it to do its best. I beg the Government to come back and have another look. I would be very happy to set up a meeting for the Minister with the newest experts in neuroscientific research to see whether we can take this forward.

First, I thank the noble Baroness for the work she does and has done in this space for a number of years. The problem is the definition of “ultra-processed food”. It includes things such as wholemeal bread, baked beans and cereal. It is not a helpful definition. There are certain ultra-processed foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar. We completely agree that those things are bad for us and that we should do everything we can to discourage people from eating them. The label “ultra-processed food” is not helpful.

My noble friend will know that one-third of baby and infant foods contain ultra-processed food which, in effect, is leading to obesity, and he will know that obesity can lead to cardiac problems and hypertension in later life, which costs the NHS significant sums of money. There is evidence in recent research that firms’ marketing is providing misleading information. What are the Government doing to ensure that this aspect, particularly with baby and infant food, is better regulated?

I thank my noble friend. We are focused on the sugar, salt and saturated fat content. It is not the fact that food is called ultra-processed, per se. We would not discourage people from eating whole- meal bread, but wholemeal bread is considered to be a processed food. The action we are taking is for a reduction in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

The Minister is focusing on reducing fats, salt and sugar in meals. When are the Government going to reduce those elements in school meals for children?

Absolutely. That is why we are at the highest level of free school meals for children ever. More than a third of children are now receiving free school meals, including all infant schoolchildren. The noble Lord is correct that a healthy start to life is vital, and if we can make sure that children are getting a good, nutritionally balanced school meal, that is a good start to life.

My Lords, as the Online Safety Bill works its way through this House, we see how interventionist the Government can be in the interests of public health and well-being when they put their mind to it. Learning from that effort, does the Minister agree that the phrase “legal but harmful” is quite an accurate description of some of the kinds of ultra-processed food that are sold and marketed in the UK?

Absolutely. Some of the foods are not healthy at all, and we totally want to discourage them. We have taken a lot of steps in that space. The whole product positioning strategy, whereby you cannot now put such foods in places where there will be so called pester-power influences, is beginning to have an effect. We are already seeing healthier foods outgrowing non-healthy foods from that. Those sorts of actions were modelled to show that they were effective for 96% of the things that we are trying to target to reduce in terms of calories.

My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register and I hate to disagree with my noble friend Lady Boycott but, on this occasion, I do. Does the Minister agree with the conclusions of the nutritional advisory committee of the five Nordic countries, published on 20 June 2023? It says:

“The … committee’s view is that the current categorization of foods as ultra-processed foods does not add to the already existing food classifications and recommendations”.

Does he also agree with the Brazilian scientists who coined the notion of ultra-processed food when they say that their classification is a good way to understand the food system, but not individual foods?

Yes, the noble Lord is absolutely correct and makes the point that I have been trying to make but far more eloquently; I thank him. That is precisely the point. Some ultra-processed foods are very unhealthy and we should be doing everything we can to discourage them. Others, such as wholemeal bread or baked beans, are totally fine.

My Lords, I am very grateful for my noble friend’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. The definition of ultra-processed foods to which I think noble Lords on all sides are referring comes from the recent book, Ultra-Processed People. It is food that is

“wrapped in plastic and has …one ingredient that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen”.

I suspect that is true of the contents of almost all of our cupboards, including, as my noble friend the Ministers says, sliced wholemeal bread. Is it not time that we stood up against moral panic, focused on the actual empirical data and followed the science?

I thank my noble friend; that was excellently put. Again, it is the content of the food that matters and not what it is called.

My Lords, to follow on from the Minister’s comments about the definition of ultra-processed foods, can he confirm what work is taking place to nail down a definition and, upon this definition, will the Government carry out the research that scientists believe to be necessary?

As I have said, the fact that something is processed is not a helpful definition. I would recommend that we focus all our activity on the contents of the foods—whether they are high in saturated fat, sugar or salt—and not on whether they are processed.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister let us know what assessment the Government have made of food industry links with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and whether this might have influenced the evidence and recommendations of the review?

On any advisory body you clearly want to get experts in the field. Necessarily, they will often be experts from companies as well. It is vital that they abide by the principles of conduct in public life and make sure they declare any conflicts. As such, we are content that we have a proper expert panel.

My Lords, may I take the Minister back to the question from my noble friend Lord Brooke, who asked about the content of school meals? The Minister replied that school meals are a good thing and more people should have them, with which I do not suppose anybody would want to disagree. However, I did not hear him say in what way the Government are ensuring that the content of those school meals is appropriate and free from salt, sugar and fat in the way that my noble friend Lord Brooke was asking for.

My understanding is that those guidelines are there; it is absolutely the right question. The Department for Education, working with the Department of Health, makes sure that a nutritionally balanced diet is there. There is also a joint DfE/DHSE programme in respect of nursery milk and fresh fruit and vegetables for young children, to give them a good start in life.

My Lords, is it not the solution to this problem not to ban things but to improve education so that people understand what they are eating and make rational and clear choices? Is it not the case that many of these processed foods are bought by people because they are cheaper? If we could encourage people in schools to learn what used to be called domestic science—cooking skills and so on—so they can use fresh ingredients, then we would advance this case far more effectively than by banning things.

I absolutely agree with my noble friend about education and teaching people how to cook a decent meal. The other crucial thing is the industry reformulating foods to take out sugar and fat content. That is where some of the restrictions are working. Advertising and product placement really do work, so if you make it harder, the industry is incentivised to take sugar and fat out of those meals to make them healthier so that they can still be marketed.