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Ultra-processed Food

Volume 833: debated on Thursday 26 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact on public health of ultra processed food; and what steps if any they will take to reduce the amount of ultra processed food consumed.

Observed associations between ultra-processed food and health are concerning, but it is unclear whether these foods are inherently unhealthy due to processing or their nutritional content. A diet high in processed food is often high in calories, salt, saturated fat and sugar, which are associated with an increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases. This continues to be the basis of our dietary guidelines and policies to tackle obesity and poor diets.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, which reflects what he said yesterday in our debate, that the House did not agree on whether processed food per se is bad for you. Common sense has long suggested that food that, to quote the Washington Post, is

“refined, pounded, heated, melted, shaped, extruded and packed with additives”

is bad for you. These dreadful food-like substances do not just contain a terrible balance of nutrients; there is also a problem with the process. The science increasingly demonstrates that. Yesterday I referred to a study based on the French NutriNet-Santé study by Chantal Julia et al; I supplied the Minister with the link. Will he commit to asking the department to look closely at that study, which demonstrates that nutritional quality and ultra-processing are correlated but distinct issues in diet? Will the department provide a substantive response to the study?

Obviously, I am always happy to look at all the research because this is a vital area. This is the fifth time we have discussed it in the last three and a half months, so I apologise for any repetition. We are ever vigilant on this area but, as the contributors to yesterday’s debate showed, the research is mixed. The key things to get behind are the bad features of ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

My Lords, I will ask a very simple question. Was it not true that, before we had the link between smoking and lung cancer, we did have evidence of an epidemiological connection? The problem here is that we have no direct link, but it does seem that there is a connection that we do not yet know is causal. Will the department be very careful not to ignore that evidence simply because it is very inconvenient for scientists if their whole history of understanding nutrition is undermined by it?

Absolutely—we have to be understanding of the latest research in cause and effect. The evidence I have been shown so far is that it is about the features within those ultra-processed foods—are they high in fat, sugar or salt? Those are the things that are causing the harm. If we find links to the processing itself, we will act on that.

My Lords, a few years ago the Government introduced very good obesity policies on stopping the sale of “two for the price of one” on junk food and limiting junk food advertising during children’s television. These have been delayed until 2025. What was the Government’s reasoning? Can the Minister assure the House that it was not based on any lobbying from the food industry?

The rationale was very clear. The measures that we introduced by the modelling showed that in what we were trying to do we were attacking the things that cause 95% of the reduction in calories—namely, the product positioning, which has the support of 78% of people to reduce the so-called pester power. Early evidence shows that it is working, because foods that are not high in the bad stuff have gone up by 16% and those with high sugar, salt and fat content have gone down by 6%, all through the product positioning. It is working, but the most important thing is that we have gone after the big numbers, those that effect 95% reductions in calorific intake.

My Lords, to follow on from the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, there is a public expectation that the delayed junk food advertising regulations will mean that children will be less likely to see ads for products from companies such as KFC and McDonald’s. But my understanding from the Minister’s previous comments is that the Government’s expectation now is that the advertising will carry on as before and children will continue to see just as many ads, albeit with the products reformulated to get around the ad ban. Is that correct?

I have said many times that the prize is reformulation. I do not think that any of us should have a problem per se with the food if the bad stuff is taken out. Diet Coke is a perfect example. It is not particularly good for you but not bad for you either, so why should Coca-Cola not be able to advertise Diet Coke? If you take out the bad stuff, we should encourage industry because advertising works. It wants to advertise, so if it is encouraged to take out the bad stuff, that is a big incentive.

My Lords, as far as I recall, it was said that we should keep it simple and that the focus should be on sugar. When will the Government look at children’s school meals, review the regulations and reduce the sugar in children’s free school meals?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. A healthy start to life is vital, which is why I am very pleased to say that we have the highest level of free school meals ever, with every infant school kid and a third of children overall having a free school meal. On the composition of those foods, I know that this was planned but was stopped due to Covid. The timing is now being reviewed again, because things move on in terms of the content and healthy foods.

My Lords, most people would be very concerned to know what ultra-processed food means. People who rely on staples such as bread, cereals, sausages, gravy, fruit juice, baked beans and biscuits would be very surprised to hear us talking about those as ultra-processed food and how bad it is for you. Some people say that five ingredients or more puts food into this category. While we should encourage vegetables, fruit and fresh food of various kinds being eaten, does my noble friend not agree that we are alarming the public too much if we deny them the staples that they are used to?

That is absolutely correct. My understanding is that ultra-processed foods make up, on average, 60% of a person’s diet. If you were to try a blanket ban, it would have a massive impact. I think we all agree that it is important that we try to discourage things that are bad in ultra-processed food, not ultra-processed food per se. As I have said many times, there are many types of ultra-processed food that we encourage, such as wholemeal bread and many of the cereals.

My Lords, ultra-processed food rests on the weirdly unscientific definition of containing stuff that we do not normally find in our kitchens. My noble friend the Minister has rightly said that the advice is to cut down on salt, sugar and fat. I suggest that almost all of us have plenty of salt, sugar and fat in our kitchens, so will my noble friend the Minister join me in urging people to stick to advice that is based on science and the empirical and reasoned method, rather than going for a basically primitive fear of things that we are unfamiliar with?

That is absolutely right. We should always base this on the science. I thank my noble friend for that comment.

My Lords, nearly half of baby snacks and up to three-quarters of baby biscuits and rusks are categorised as ultra-processed. Many of them are high in fat, sugar and salt and if overconsumed, reports suggest, can lead to weight gain, unhealthy eating habits and a wider negative impact on development. Have the Government made any consideration of measures to help parents to be more informed of these risks? What discussions have taken place with industry to address information and formulation?

To take the second question first, the industry has worked with a lot of comments on reformulation across the board—for younger children and older ones. Noble Lords will remember me saying that foods such as Mars, Galaxy, Bounty and Snickers bars have all been reformulated, as have Mr Kipling’s “exceedingly good” cakes. Clearly, we need to look across the board at it all. I know that the industry is working in the area of young people. I am happy to follow that up in writing with the precise details.

My Lords, in yesterday’s QSD on ultra-processed foods, the Minister spoke of how he had recently made a sound choice due to calorie labelling. What will the Government do to help and encourage SMEs with fewer than 250 employees to show calorie labelling on food and drinks that are not pre-packed?

My noble friend makes a good point. I gave an example of where it had affected my own behaviour. I am sure we all have examples of when we have looked at the menu and thought, “Oh, do I really want that choice? Is it worth the extra calories?”. We want to get it proportionate, so while we want to encourage as many companies as possible to take it up, we appreciate that for small companies it is quite a bit harder. We are working with them to introduce it voluntarily if they can.