Los Angeles

Continuing the Unprocessed Challenge

At the end of September we shared news of Andrew Wilder’s Unprocessed Challenge. Since then, 415 joined Andrew in swearing off (or significantly reducing) their consumption of highly processed foods. Rather than seeing this as a month of deprivation, many of us saw it as a challenge to expand our food choices, to try new foods that we often passed over because of a lack of information about how to prepare them, or misinformation about what they could contribute to our meals.

Yesterday was the last official day of the challenge, and Andrew shared his thoughts on what the month has meant to him. We’re grateful to Andrew for inviting us to participate and hope that many of our members and friends will take up or continue the challenge.

With that in mind, we’d also like to direct you to a just-published article by Carlos Monteiro in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association: “The Big Issue is Ultra-Processing.” From the introduction:

The proposal that food processing has an impact on public health may seem obvious. But it is largely overlooked by conventional nutrition science. As now applied in policies, programmes and interventions, nutrition science has failed to have much significant impact on what is currently the uncontrolled pandemic of obesity. As a result, it is now seen by policy-makers and the public as not particularly relevant to their needs. To be blunt, our science has become somewhat discredited. One reason, as I maintain here, is that it continues to depend on concepts and food classifications devised almost a century ago, which are now obsolescent.
. . .
Food processing, in any broad sense of this term, is not a public health issue. To suppose so would be rather foolish. This would be like supposing that food technology – or any other form of technology – is intrinsically problematic. Much discussion of food, nutrition and health that mentions processing as such as a factor is almost meaningless. To begin with, almost all food and drink always has been processed, in some real sense. A characteristic of many foodstuffs as found in nature, is that they are unpalatable or inedible unless subjected to some process, such as preparation or cooking. Also, all perishable foods, unless consumed promptly, need to be preserved in some way. This is a point often and rightly made by the food and drink manufacturing industry.

The issue therefore is not processing as such. It is the nature, extent, and purpose, of processing, and in particular, the proportion of meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks within diets that are ‘ultra-processed’ – a term I will precisely define below in this text. Also, it would be absurd to suppose that ultra-processed products, which characteristically are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat ‘fast’ or ‘convenience’ meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks, are some sort of poison. Indeed, one characteristic of ultra-processed products, as manufactured by transnational and other large firms, is that they are microbiologically safe. This is part of the pitch made by transnational firms. Cola drink manufacturers for example point out that in countries where water supplies are liable to be contaminated, their products are a way to avoid diarrhoeal diseases. Such manufacturers are now also big players in the bottled water business.

The issue is also one of proportion. This commentary does not say, nor does it imply, that the only healthy diets are those consisting solely or predominantly of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Nor is anybody going to suffer as a result of genuinely occasional consumption of for example chips (French fries), crisps (chips), confectionery (candy), pastries, biscuits (cookies), sugared soft drinks, uncontaminated burgers, or packaged pizzas, to name some ultra- processed products, although it is true that any of these can be so habit-forming as to amount to a form of ‘soft addiction’.

The public health problem caused by ultra-processing becomes evident and then an acute crisis, as the proportion of ultra-processed products within food systems, food supplies and diets rises, as it rapidly has throughout the world especially since the 1980s. A theme of this commentary is that ultra-processed products now are becoming, or already are, so dominant within industrialised food systems, that the one and only really useful way to classify foods from a health point of view (and other points of view also) is in terms of the nature, extent, and purpose of their processing.

The complete article is available online on the WPHNA’s website.