Wednesday, September 01, 2021

UN Food Report: Ultra-Pasteurized Foods

'Taken together, the totality of evidence summarised here shows beyond reasonable doubt that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is a major contributor to the pandemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes and related diseases.' Source: The need to reshape global foodprocessing: a call to the United Nations Food Systems Summit

A newly-published study of the global food system has surveyed the consequences of the increasing consumption of food that is manufactured by "industrial processes that convert food commodities such as wheat, soy, corn, oils and sugar, into chemically or physically transformed food substances, formulated with various classes of additives into generally cheap to make, long duration substitutes to minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals." The study makes extremely well-thought-out distinctions between traditional types of food processing and modern rapacious industrial practices. 

A market in Africa (source)

A market in Indonesia (source)

It's easy to think about beautiful markets in exotic places like the ones in the above photos. It's fun to picture the fresh and unfamiliar produce and new flavors you might try, and hope that these lovely scenes are never spoiled by predatory Western corporations that are destroying traditional ways of life. But do we really know what distant individuals in unfamiliar cultures need and want? Have we created a vision of paradise that looks as good to them as perhaps their ways of life look to us? How does the UN imagine anyone can influence their choice of “modern” food when advertising has convinced them of its appeal?

Influencing people in far-away places is so complicated! American occupation couldn't change Afghan society by 20 years of war and forced social change -- only a small part of the urban population embraced the values and lifestyle we encouraged, and there was no success in sight, only endless expense of life and material goods. In the past, we couldn't change the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people, only of a few collaborators. In both cases we found some citizens who wanted the political and social systems we offered, but in the end, we couldn't change their cultures by constant war, enormous expenditure, and propaganda. It seems ironic that in contrast to these military failures, deep changes to foodways have happened as a result of Western commercial activities. Food manufacturers from Europe and the US have succeeded in replacing traditionally processed food with the supercharged taste and accessibility of packaged snacks and drinks. Throughout the world, people are experiencing the consequences that the UN paper reports. 

The problems of the global food supply, as so well documented in this UN report and many other sources describing the abandonment of traditional agricultural and food practices, are part of the global situation that makes me so pessimistic that I can hardly face reading the news (a reaction that a lot of people are expressing). Hunger. The pandemic and embrace of crazy snake oil cures promoted by demagogues. Shortages of goods and housing. Worse and worse racism and exploitation of the vulnerable in our own society and others. Armed conflicts over resources. Desperate refugees. And more, looming ahead of us.

The world seems full of indications that we face the disintegration of the human project. More narrowly, we face the loss of optimism that our society will improve and influence other societies. Natural disasters loom as well. Fires in the Western US are dwarfed by similar fires that have ravaged other parts of the world. Floods, typhoons, hurricanes, and droughts currently affect many environments and countries. Of many examples, the suffering of Haiti seems especially notable: is Haiti, with its inability to recover from repeated natural disasters, a bellwether of the human future or just a sign of international indifference to their poverty, bad luck, and bad government? 

Obviously, there's much more to be said about all of this. One can find many controversies about causes, effects, and predictions. Please excuse my randomness! And please read the UN report on ultra-processed food -- only 3 pages long. In particular, check it out if you think my summary is wrong. The report makes very careful distinctions and observations, especially about what foods are considered ultra-processed and which ones are moderately or minimally processed and thus not necessarily being criticized. 

Coincidentally, CNN recently reported that a survey published August 10 discovered that American children received 67% of the calories they consumed from ultra-processed foods, "such as frozen pizza, microwave meals, packaged snacks and desserts." In 1999 the corresponding quantity was 61%. "The study analyzed the diet of 33,795 children and adolescents nationwide." (link)

I learned about the UN report from a blog post by Marion Nestle, a food scientist, writer, and one of the authors of the study.

This summary is my own interpretation, and this review is copyright © 2021.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Such an important post! And thanks for the link to the UN study -- I'll be reading it in a bit. We've gone SO wrong in the way we raise and consume food. Although ironically, I've been experimenting lately with meat-like manufactured protein (Beyond Meat "beef")which is certainly ultra-processed, but also has some virtues. Such a complicated subject . . .

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I realize you were focusing on food and food sources, but you brought up Afghan and Vietnam, which reminded me we have forced our way of life on others for as long as we have had a country. We practically wiped out the buffalo in order to force Native Americans onto reservations. We enslaved Africans in order to have cheap labor on cotton farms. We whites (WASPs)can be brutal at times.

Back to food processing. The UN report brought up a good point in that many people were obese before the Covid outbreak. However, after the outbreak, obesity was even further exacerbated. Thanks for sharing this report and your take on processed food.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I have a book on processed food that would be perfect for you to read. This type of food is cheap and easy to prepare so I can see its attraction. But I could not eat that way.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I worry greatly about what people consider food. One day I went to pick up my groceries from Kroger and the staff member put someone else's groceries in my car. I could tell immediately that these groceries were not mine; I'm not sure there was anything in the order that I would even consider food, but instead, it was canned sodas, packages of cookies and crackers, boxes of powdered substances. Do people even know what they are eating?

I think I need to read this report.

Melynda@Scratch Made Food! said...

What we have come to call "food" is a shame, especially when we give/force it on others. Cheap packaged food-like substances are not food. Thanks for sharing this post.

Tina said...

It's a shame unhealthy foods are often offered at such low prices. Clean healthy fresh produce is often ignored in favor of fast food or convenience foods prepackaged. A thoughful post, Mae.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Great post. The inequaties in access to fresh, "real" food are so great and that is shameful and sobering. I'll be checking out the article for more information. Thank you for the link.

Marg said...

Your post reminds me that so many people think that fresh food much more inaccessible than processed. Access to good food should be easy for everyone, whatever that looks like in their locations and cultures.

Thanks for sharing Mae.