Let me start off with a few disclosures/caveats: 1) I'd love nothing more than to eat a dinner made with nothing other than the fresh ingredients I picked from my garden but am thwarted by the fact that I live in a small apartment in a big city; 2) I eat a healthy balanced diet but see nothing wrong with the occasional sweet (in fact, I eat one almost daily); 3) I prefer products to have as few ingredients as possible and I want to know what those ingredients are; and 4) I've worked with the food industry for the past 20 years.
I wanted to make sure I put that out there before I shared my thoughts on the recently-released Nutrient Profile Model from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) which represents the World Health Organization in Latin America. PAHO has stood out among other regional health organizations for its strong push for policies that would improve the obesity epidemic, including a call for food industry regulation. Having just spent some time in Chile and Argentina, I can see the positive impact of some of those efforts. When I asked one of my guides why there were so few overweight Chileans and Argentineans despite the richness of the food, she explained that they eat small portions, exercise often and, she added, "We just don't tolerate obesity here."
You can't argue with that. But I'm not sure I can agree with a policy that classifies foods as "processed" and "ultra-processed" and calls for them to be regulated based on whether or not they have "excessive" amounts of certain nutrients. Under this model, "processed" foods are defined as:
Food products manufactured by industry in which salt, sugar, or other culinary ingredients have been added to unprocessed or minimally processed foods to preserve them or make them more palatable. Processed food products are derived directly from natural foods and are recognized as a version of the original foods. Most of them have two or three ingredients. The processes used in the manufacture of these food products may include different methods of cooking, and, in the case of cheeses and breads, nonalcoholic fermentation. Additives may be used to preserve the properties of these products or to avoid the proliferation of microorganisms.
That sounds pretty fair to me. It's the "ultra-processed" foods that sound a little scarier (comments that reflect my humble opinion are in bold):
Industrial formulations manufactured with several ingredients. Like processed products, ultra-processed products include substances from the culinary ingredients category, such as fats, oils, salt, and sugar (isn't that what we call a recipe?). Ultra-processed products can be distinguished from processed products based on the presence of other substances that are extracted from foods but have no common culinary use (e.g., casein, milk whey, protein hydrolysate, and protein isolates from soy and other foods); substances synthesized from food constituents (e.g., hydrogenated or esterified oils, modified starches, and other substances not naturally present in foods); and additives used to modify the color, flavor, taste, or texture of the original product (otherwise known as food preparation). Unprocessed or minimally processed foods usually represent a tiny proportion of or are absent in the list of ingredients of ultra-processed products (so are the minimally and unprocessed foods there or not?), which often have 5, 10, or 20 or more items (are 5 ingredients bad? Or are 10? What if I have a recipe with 20 ingredients? Should I scrap it as ultra-processed?). Several techniques are used in the manufacture of ultra-processed products, including extrusion, molding (better throw out those cookie cutters), and pre-processing, through frying (I fry at home; is that bad?). Examples include soft drinks, packaged snacks, ”instant” noodles, and chicken nuggets.
Okay, I know what they meant. But it's those subtle nuances in defining these things that are the problem. Can we really classify a six-ingredient product like a Chocolate Cherry Torte Larabar (not a client) that's clearly been molded as "ultra-processed"? This definition has so many shades of gray that E.L. James could be inspired to write another book. But, then again, isn't the shades of gray the problem with profiling of any kind?
Then let's talk about the "excessive amounts" definitions. I could spend some time arguing about each one of these (e.g., aren't we over limiting total fat to 30% of calories by now?), I do agree with the basic principals of limiting sodium, added sugar, saturated fat and trans fat. But why is it okay to have more than 10% of total energy from saturated fat from a rib eye, which qualifies as "unprocessed" ("Foods obtained directly from plants or animals that do not undergo any alteration between their removal from nature and their culinary preparation or consumption.") but has 30% of its calories from saturated fat (apart from influence by the beef-loving Argentinians)?
Again, I'm not disagreeing with the principal here. We do need to figure out how to fix the obesity epidemic and we'd all be better off if we could eat locally-grown foods that we combined into freshly-made dishes from our own kitchen. But, as we've learned with other forms of profiling, it's not that simple. We can't make surface assumptions about foods without delving a little deeper.
Then again, it could be worse. A recent study in the journal Appetite suggested the use of emoticons to help educate kids on healthful versus unhealthful foods -- a suggestion that makes me want to use a certain emoji that I'd rather not use in polite company.
I'm not sure of the solution here. But let's be a little more careful before we start profiling food. What's next? Stop and frisk?