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WHO Reports Hundreds of Thousands of Annual Deaths in Europe Linked to Ultra-Processed Foods

The World Health Organization accused the food and beverage industry of spreading misinformation and lobbying against public health initiatives.
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By Daniel Dawson
Jun. 25, 2024 12:52 UTC

Ultra-processed food is respon­si­ble for about 391,000 deaths annu­ally in Europe, accord­ing to a new report from the World Health Organization.

Along with alco­hol, fos­sil fuels and tobacco, the WHO said the four indus­tries are respon­si­ble for more than 2.7 mil­lion deaths per annum on the con­ti­nent, about one-quar­ter of all fatal­i­ties.

It is esti­mated that at least one-third of total global deaths [19 mil­lion] and 41 per­cent of non­com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease deaths are attrib­ut­able to just four com­mer­cial prod­ucts: tobacco, ultra-processed foods, fos­sil fuels and alco­hol,” the WHO wrote.

See Also:Health News

There is no for­mal def­i­n­i­tion of ultra-processed food. However, the widely used clas­si­fi­ca­tion estab­lished by Nova says ultra-processed foods are for­mu­la­tions made mostly or entirely from sub­stances derived from foods and addi­tives” with neg­li­gi­ble use of raw or nat­ural foods in the prepa­ra­tion.

The report found that diets high in sodium are respon­si­ble for 252,187 deaths annu­ally, 2.27 per­cent, fol­lowed by diets high in processed meat (117,290 deaths, 1.07 per­cent), diets high in sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages (15,606 deaths, 0.14 per­cent) and diets high in trans fatty acids (6,056 deaths, 0.05 per­cent).

The WHO report fol­lows sep­a­rate research pub­lished in the British Medical Journal that con­nected high con­sump­tion of ultra-processed foods to more than 30 health issues.

Consistent evi­dence shows that higher expo­sure to ultra-processed foods is asso­ci­ated with an increased risk of 32 dam­ag­ing health out­comes includ­ing can­cer, major heart and lung con­di­tions, men­tal health dis­or­ders and early death,” Melissa Lane, the study’s lead author from Deakin University in Australia, told Olive Oil Times in an April 2024 inter­view.

The WHO report went fur­ther and accused the pro­duc­ers of ultra-processed foods of exac­er­bat­ing their prod­ucts’ impact on non­com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases by lob­by­ing gov­ern­ments and influ­enc­ing pub­lic pol­icy, espe­cially dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic.

An analy­sis of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­ity prac­tices dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic showed the four ways in which cor­po­ra­tions that were pro­duc­ing health-harm­ing and poten­tially health-harm­ing prod­ucts, includ­ing tobacco, alco­hol, fos­sil fuels and ultra-processed food and drink, took advan­tage of the pan­demic, based on exam­ples from more than 90 coun­tries,” the WHO wrote.

Companies used the cri­sis to por­tray them­selves and their prod­ucts in a pos­i­tive light, and to use it as an oppor­tu­nity to build rela­tion­ships with gov­ern­ments, increase the scope for lob­by­ing and incor­po­rate mes­sag­ing on their con­tri­bu­tion to the pan­demic response into their mar­ket­ing,” the report added.

Indeed, Serge Hercburg, the cre­ator of Nutri-Score, a front-of-pack label­ing sys­tem being con­sid­ered by the European Commission for manda­tory adop­tion across the bloc, has long accused the food indus­try of spread­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion to under­mine Nutri-Score.

See Also:Some Ultra-Processed Foods Are Addictive, Like Tobacco

The WHO report also accused com­mer­cial actors in the food and bev­er­age indus­try of exploit­ing the con­cept of global inequal­ity to oppose attempts to raise taxes on ultra-processed food and drink.

The WHO con­tends that the indus­try labels these poli­cies as regres­sive taxes aimed at low-income com­mu­ni­ties while work­ing to lower the prices of its prod­ucts and tar­get these com­mu­ni­ties with aggres­sive mar­ket­ing and sales tac­tics.

This includes, for exam­ple, reshap­ing envi­ron­ments so that, in some areas, par­tic­u­larly deprived areas, it can be hard to access healthy food,” the report said.

However, food and bev­er­age indus­try offi­cials have crit­i­cized the report as disin­gen­u­ous.

To con­nect the con­sump­tion of processed foods with the tobacco and fos­sil fuel indus­tries is irre­spon­si­ble and out­ra­geously mis­lead­ing,” Rebecca Fernández, the sci­ence direc­tor of FoodDrink Europe, a trade asso­ci­a­tion, told Food Navigator.

Well-estab­lished food nutri­tion sci­ence the world over tells us that the best way to tackle obe­sity and non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases is to focus on the nutri­tion con­tent of a food and how often you con­sume it in con­junc­tion with what type of lifestyle you lead,” she added.

Along with crit­i­ciz­ing the food and bev­er­age indus­try, the WHO report rec­om­mended gov­ern­ments adopt stronger reg­u­la­tions and leg­is­la­tion to curb the mar­ket­ing of health-harm­ing prod­ucts, increase the trans­parency of lob­by­ing and con­flicts of inter­est in indus­try-funded health research, raise taxes on multi­na­tion­als and increase fund­ing for civil soci­ety groups focused on pro­mot­ing pub­lic health.

By imple­ment­ing these strate­gies, the region can accel­er­ate progress towards global non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease tar­gets and Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” the report con­cluded.


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