The Grist: Technologists Stand Up And Be Counted! 

Words by Geoffrey Annison PHD, Australian Food and Grocery Council

 

I have the good fortune of being asked on occasions to lecture university students on the food industry. I say good fortune because it reminds me of what a remarkable industry it is that we work for. Twenty-five million consumers in Australia rely on the industry daily to meet their food and nutrition needs. And theindustry does it so well that most consumers not only take it for granted, but attribute next to no value to it. In fact, a worrying trend is that many consumers have poor views of the mainstream food industry, reflecting the drip-feed of negative news stories about the industry in the popular press. On top of that, there is a general lack of knowledge regarding the true nature of the food system which, for most Australians (but not all), more than adequately provides for their food security as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

My lectures start with some clear up-front statements – the food processing industry transports food through space, through time and through form. In other words, it moves foods from production areas to markets, it stores food for out of season availability, and it changes the composition of foods making them more edible, more palatable, safer and in more convenient forms. I emphasise – we don’t eat wheat, we eat bread; we don’t eat live animals, we eat meat cuts; and we don’t drink raw milk, we pasteurise milk for drinking or further processing to dairy products. Of course, the main point is that most food products we eat have been processed in some way with very few untouched by technology. Even fresh fruits and vegetables have often been through some form of sanitation or treatment to slow perishing and/or to reduce microbial pathogen loads. So how is it that many of our food products are described as junk foods and the level of food processing is now equated with unhealthiness? All too often the health experts and their guidelines recommend eating fresh foods and limiting processed foods.

In the last few years not content with simply talking about processed foods, the term “ultra-processed” foods has come into the public health lexicon with studies seeking to link the level of processing of foods in the diet with public health outcomes. From my understanding the term was first advocated in this context by a Brazilian research group and was picked up rapidly by public health policy academics around the world. Following on from this a new food classification system called NOVA, based on the level of processing, was developed. The concept has now been formally adopted in high level public health documents originating from the FAO and the Pan American Health Organization. Space precludes reproducing the 160-word definition entirely but the basic gist is that ultra-processed foods are those with several ingredients derived from or synthesised through industrial processes, not naturally present. And yes, they are high in energy, saturated fat, sodium and sugars, but also additives, preservatives, colourings, etc. And apparently, they are also “hyper-palatable” showing that no superlative is too extreme to illustrate the public health alarm about these foods. I’m unaware of any consumer science studies confirming the claim.

Of course, classifying foods on their level of processing is not of itself a bad thing. Indeed it might have some usefulness in describing the nature of food supply for a number of reasons (eg health policy, industry policy, economic policy, etc.). However, ultra-processed foods have been described even in some respectable health journals in extremely pejorative terms. For example in The Lancet Moodie and co-workers write “…supply and demand drivers are similar in the tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and beverage industries and it is therefore not surprising that these unhealthy commodities stimulate complementary epidemics…”. They then go on to state “The term industrial epidemic has been used to describe health harms associated with various goods including tobacco, alcohol, vinyl chloride, asbestos, cars, and the food and drink industries”. Not only are ultra-processed food products themselves considered harmful to health, but the very industries which produce them are considered to be “vectors” of non communicable diseases. Taken in its entirety, the study comes across as a polemic conflating the issues non-communicable disease levels with globalisation, trade policies, trans-national corporations, and as well as the nature of the products themselves.

Of course, the corollary to the ultra-processed food/disease dogma, if it becomes widely accepted, is that there will be calls for greater regulation of the food industry. Restrictions on advertising and promotion, warning statements on food packaging, limits on product formulations and fiscal measures (taxation) to reduce demand have already been mooted both in Australia and overseas.

In the Australian context, the NOVA food classification system has been applied to food and beverage items contained within the Australian Food and Nutrient (AUSNUT) 2007 and AUSNUT 2011-13 food composition databases. The authors of the study propose that “...rather than defining and categorising food quality in terms of nutrient profiles, primary production and processing could be the foundation for nutrition education campaigns or alternative dietary guidelines.” If this proposal is adopted it effectively discards the learnings of a century of classical nutritional science upon which the concept of balanced diets was developed and substitutes an approach to healthy eating based on the misguided, and almost spiritual, belief that the more unchanged, or natural, a food is the more healthy it necessarily is.

The views that unprocessed fresh foods have an innate healthiness which is diminished, dispersed or destroyed through processing are not new. Indeed, when pasteurisation was introduced into Britain in the first half of the last century there was significant delay, particularly in rural areas, as a result of opposition from those claiming it “took the good out of the milk”. One consequence was that child evacuees from cities to the country during the Second World War suffered a high incidence of tuberculosis contracted through the drinking of raw milk. In fact, it was one of the best kept secrets of the war as you can imagine the alarm which would have resulted if the parents of the children became aware of the epidemic. Until pasteurisation became widespread, milk was a common vector of tuberculosis and many other diseases with “typhoid follows the milk maid” a common saying in 19th century London.

The pasteurisation of drinking milk and milk used in derived products in Australia is mandatory (with some exceptions). Pasteurisation has turned a high risk “natural” food product into an extremely safe core food group. Indeed, food processing is about making foods safer, improving their nutritional value by increasing the digestibility of their nutrients, and of course making them more palatable. The industrial processes used result in a food supply for consumers that is accessible and affordable providing extensive choice from which healthy diets can be constructed.

As scientists, and particularly as food technologists (and I am one), it I time we stood up to be counted, and set the record straight. The message is simple – when it comes to public health, food processing is by far a net contributor to positive outcomes. Any suggestion to contrary is ill-informed and misguided at best and deliberately misleading at worst. We should be celebrating food processing and the industry which supports its as major contributors to the health of the nation, and indeed the wealth of the nation through the economic activity generated and exports dollars earned.

Fortunately, the scientific literature is producing some studies seeking to redress the balance. A recent study concluded that the NOVA food classification system provides little advantage to the current epidemiological and nutrient intake assessment when developing public health nutrition strategies. Not withstanding that, it is likely to be a long, drawn out debate with the food manufacturing industry coming under more and more pressure to explain and justify the processes and technologies it uses. I’m encouraged, however, by the name NOVA itself. While nova stars do shine brightly, their time in the firmament is brief as they are doomed ultimately to fade into the darkness.

References for this article can be found on the AIFST website: https://www.aifst.asn.au/.