About 60 per cent of the food in our supermarket trolleys is “ultraprocessed”. But what exactly is the difference between processed and ultraprocessed?
The level of food processing is a continuum. Unprocessed food has little to no intervention – a bag of potatoes, for instance.
Processed foods use techniques such as freezing and drying to preserve the shelf-life of food – a tin of fish.
Ultraprocessed foods use advanced food manufacturing – extrusion, hydrogenation, hydrolysis and sensory-enhancing processes such as bulking, aerating and foaming. Think Pringles.
There is one crucial difference between processed and ultraprocessed, and it is an economic one. Food is ultraprocessed not only to extend shelf life, but to make it “hyperpalatable”. In essence, you know if you are eating an ultraprocessed food if it delivers a taste bomb in your mouth at the same time your hand is reaching for the next one, always with a vague feeling of never quite getting enough of it.
[ Ireland's obesity crisis has reached epidemic proportions, says WHO ]
The era of ultraprocessing has led to a Cambrian explosion of food tastes and textures. The problem is that it works too well. The food tastes too good, and it is too cheap, too available, too efficient and too convenient. We now know that ultraprocessed foods have uniquely harmful effects on the human body, irrespective of their calorie content, and this contributes to obesity, diabetes, cancer and other health problems. This is why ultraprocessed foods are viewed by public-health actors as junk foods.
In response, the Irish Government (as well as almost every other world government) has instituted a policy of reformulation – in essence, reducing the levels of saturated fats, sugar and salt in these foods. On the face of it, this looks like a brilliant win-win: unlike other public-health policies, it has the potential also to benefit the ultraprocessed-food industry, because the focus is on changing the nutrient profile of a product rather than decreasing its overall consumption. Think Diet Coke.
Yet no ultraprocessed food manufacturer has decreased its overall output.
So where does this increasing food pile go?
In one of the most cited works in history, Garrett Hardin asked the reader to imagine a field that was open to all, a commons. Each herder would try to put as many cattle as possible on this commons, because they get a direct benefit from their own animals grazing, and suffer only a postponed cost from when their own and others’ cattle overgraze and the commons deteriorates. In other words, each herder is motivated to add more and more animals because they get a direct advantage from their own animals, but the herder carries only a small and delayed cost that arises from overgrazing.
Hardin sums up the situation of the commons with these words: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited.”
What is public health if not a biological commons? It is a limited and shared resource. Limited because there are only so many calories our bodies can take in without negative effects. Shared because, while many individuals are not sick, it is easy to see that the population is. We have many population illnesses – heart disease, obesity, alcoholism, tobacco, depression, gambling – and if they don’t affect your individual body, they affect your social body: your family, your hospital, your community, your workplace, your prisons, your next generation.
In our case, one can see how junk-food manufacturers compete for a shared but limited common pasture on which to graze. The population’s body is open to all junk-food companies, which compete intensely for a share of it. Each junk-food manufacturer acts rationally – they know there is only so much ultraprocessed food we can eat. But it is a logic shared by dozens of other competitors, encouraging a limitless production on a commons that is limited.
An interesting aspect of any commons dilemma, from traffic congestion to the nuclear-arms race, is that once individuals become aware that others are exploiting the commons, they are more likely to increase their own exploitation of it. This phenomenon is known as stimulated exploitation. Observing the success of competitors’ ultraprocessed foods in the market place is likely to spur competitor efforts to create even more hyperpalatable but nutritionally empty products.
Have you seen the bread aisle in the supermarket recently? Count how many bread brands have branched into lines of pancakes, brioches and flapjacks. Look at how every cereal manufacturer now has product extensions in breakfast bars, granolas and sweet spreads. Breads and cereals are biscuitised, dairy is dessertised, vegetables are crispified.
There is growing awareness of corporate practices such as greenwashing, pinkwashing, wokewashing, and leanwashing. This happens where a veneer of corporate social responsibility is applied intentionally to mask business as usual, deflecting attention towards visible but ultimately superficial changes in corporate agendas. “X-washing” is the intent to cynically deceive, manipulate, and aggressively persuade stakeholders.
In spite of this, we have not met a single food producer who wishes for their consumers to be ill. None of them wake up in the morning hoping to make a child overweight.
The junk-food industry ardently believes its efforts to tackle the obesity crisis are genuine, commensurate with the scale of the problem and well-intentioned. This psychology might be better understood as “leanwishing”– the use of corporate responsibility practices by the food industry with the sincere hope that these will reverse the obesity crisis and protect their customers from the harmful effects of their products.
We have been constantly losing the battle with the drivers of obesity in Ireland over the past 30 years. We need a more objective measurement tool – a ratio which compares the scale, scope and speed of food-industry reformulation against the scale, scope and speed of formulation, namely the creation of new products, product-line extensions, flavours, delivery channels, snacking occasions and portion sizes. We need to stop the mass infiltration of healthy food with ultraprocessed-food variations.
There is a world of difference between stabilising the extremely high prevalence of being overweight in Ireland and reversing it. Reversing it means accepting that obesity is as much about overproduction as it is about overconsumption. In order to reverse obesity, we must enclose and protect the biological commons using taxation, advertising legislation, channel restriction, plain packaging and mandatory reformulation, simultaneously.
The crisis of overproduction requires a more empathetic response to ultraprocessed food manufacturers too. They are currently obliged to engage in two contradictory actions: to increase production and reduce consumption. If a food manufacturer changed its entire product portfolio to protect the biological commons, they would be utterly foolish: a dozen other manufacturers would just race in to fill the void.
Effective policies to protect the commons would come as a welcome relief to junk food manufacturers, who currently have inadequate solutions at their disposal to limit their overgrazing.
Dr Norah Campbell is an associate professor of marketing at Trinity Business School; Dr Sarah Browne is an assistant professor of marketing at Trinity Business School; Dr Marius Claudy is associate professor of marketing at UCD School of Business; Kathryn Reilly is policy manager with the Irish Heart Foundation; Prof Francis Finucane is consultant endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals and honorary full professor in medicine at University of Galway