Even though eating whole real food is better than processed food, we can have very little choice, especially in hustle and bustle cities. Worse still, processed food is highly oligopolized by a few giant international companies, it is hopeless to use consumers’ market forces to aim for improvement of the nutritional density of processed food.
According to Stuckler and Nestle (2012), “3/4 of world food sales involve processed foods”, 10 largest food companies control over half and 15% of all food sales in the US and worldwide respectively.
Chronic diseases are nowadays widespread globally or an epidemic is probably because of this “Big Food” trend. For example, Stuckler and Nestle (2002) show the following evidence:
First, there are studies showing that the global rise in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and processed foods with high sugar-salt-fat is driven by Big Food. (Stuckler et al., 2012) SSBs are found to be the major contributors to childhood obesity (Maliv et al., 2006; Moreno and Rodriguez, 2007) and type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Hu and Malik, 2010; Malik et al., 2010).
Besides SSBs, another two studies found the relationship between the consumption of processed food with obesity, weight gain and diabetes. (Basu et al., 2012; Pereira et al., 2005)
With so many scientific evidence for so many years, the FDA of USA finally make a tiny step to request manufacturers of processed foods to provide “added sugars” data to the consumers.
On May 27, 2016, the FDA upgraded the rules on the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The new label requirements would be effective on Jan. 1, 2020 for bigger manufacturers and on Jan. 1, 2021 for smaller manufacturers. (For details, see FDA, 2019)
Figure 1 shows a side-by-side comparison between the current label requirements and the new label requirements. Figure 2 explains the 7 new changes.
The changes are trivial and ineffective, I would say, in response to so many scientific evidence of the association between processed food and chronic diseases.
First, it is just a change of label information, without any restrictions on the additives into the processed food. In other words, if the consumers do not pay attention to the nutrition facts data shown in the label, their health is still at risk.
Second, many so-called changes are just enlargement of the words. For example, the serving data and calories data are simply enlarged.
Third, the updated % of DVs (Daily Value) are simply minor updates of the figures.
I think the most important changes are the requirement of stating “added sugars” and the swap of some nutrients.
With the new information about added sugars, consumers can use their market forces to buy “No Added Sugar” food, so as to protect their health.
Lastly, the new nutrients section does not require stating Vitamins A and C anymore but require stating Vitamin D and Potassium, together with Calcium and Iron. Both actual amounts and % of DV are required. Hopefully, with this new information, consumers can choose foods with better nutrients.
Reading food labels is not easy, serving size is indeed tricky. For example, when it shows “10g added sugars”, it is referring to the serving size of 55g in the above example. But the whole box in fact contains 440g (8 servings). Very few people would measure serving size, and so would easily over-consume.
Be smart, no one would care about our health, but ourselves. Big Food companies would only be interested in earning more profits. Processed food does not only make people sick but also make people craving for food. The former can help Big Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and medical doctors to earn more, the latter can help Big Food Manufacturers to be rich.
Basu, S., Stuckler, D., McKee, M. and Galea, G. (2012) Nutritional drivers of worldwide diabetes: An econometric study of food markets and diabetes prevalence in 173 countries. Public Health Nutrition. 16(1), 179–186. DOI: https://doi-org.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/10.1017/S1368980012002881
Hu, F., Malik, V.S. (2010) Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Physiol Behav 100: 47–54.
FDA (2019) Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, Retrieved on Jul 24, at https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/changes-nutrition-facts-label?fbclid=IwAR2VKM2D45JViMzcOtKjscZDJXXusmsfdZTuEe1RdOIs2MmIch6g_T9YJOg
Malik, V., Popkin, B.M., Bray, G.A., Despres, J.P. and Hu, F. (2010) Sugar-sweetened beverages, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease risk. Circulation 121: 1356–1364.
Maliv, V., Schulze, M.B. and Hu, F.B. (2006) Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: A systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 84: 274–288.
Moreno, L. and Rodriguez, G. (2007) Dietary risk factors for development of childhood obesity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 10: 336–341.
Pereira, M., Kartashov, A.I., Ebbeling, C.B., Van Horn, L., Slattery, M.L., et al. (2005) Fast food habits, weight gain and insulin resistance in a 15-year prospective analysis of the CARDIA study. Lancet 365: 36–42.
Stuckler, D. and Nestle Marion (2012) Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health, PLoS Medicine, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242
Stuckler D, McKee M, Ebrahim S, Basu S (2012) Manufacturing Epidemics: The Role of Global Producers in Increased Consumption of Unhealthy Commodities Including Processed Foods, Alcohol, and Tobacco. PLoS Med. 6.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001235