Cancel OK

A possible policy shift against processed foods

fast food junk

Our era may see a shift in public nutrition policy like the one launched against cigarette smoking in the 1960s.

Although it had been long known in a vague way that smoking isn’t good for you, it wasn’t until 1964 that the Surgeon General of the United States linked it specifically to cancer and chronic bronchitis.

richard smoley produce blueprints

Since then, the percentage of the population that smokes dropped from 42 percent in 1965 to today’s 12.5 percent.

Much of this drop must be attributed to longstanding federal campaigns (including warning labels) to inform the public about the dangers of smoking.

Now we are seeing increased calls for similar policy moves toward ultra-processed foods. In a March 1 article in Harvard Public Health, Harvard public health professor Jerold Mande writes:

“Federal food law is clear: It bans ‘any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render [a food] injurious to health.’ For decades, regulators have used that provision mostly to crack down on food contaminated with toxic chemicals or microbes such as Listeria and salmonella that can make us acutely ill. It’s important to protect people from these harms, but let’s also put them in perspective: These regulated contaminants kill an estimated 1,400 Americans per year. By contrast, 1,600 Americans die every day from chronic food illness, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—about 678,000 per year. There are more deaths each year from our food than all the combat deaths from the Revolutionary War through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mande writes (emphasis his).

Appealing to that topmost concern in the American mind, Mande continues, “The economic cost of nutrition-related chronic diseases has been estimated at $16 trillion over the period from 2011 to 2020.”

Mande cites a recent study by the National Institutes of Health in which “volunteers were randomly assigned to either eat minimally processed foods or ultra-processed foods matched for daily nutrients like carbohydrates, sodium, fat, and sugar. Investigators thought weight gain would be the same in both groups, since nutrient composition was equivalent. They were wrong.

“While on the ultra-processed diet, people ate an additional 500 calories per day and began to rapidly gain weight. When the same people were later assigned to eat the minimally processed diet, they lost weight.

“This is an important finding,” Mande continues, “because it raises the possibility that it’s the additives and processing—not just the percentage of fat or sugar in a diet—that make us sick.”

Mande calls upon the Food and Drug Administration “to provide food companies with legal incentives to design foods that promote health and well-being—and these incentives ought to be equal to those the marketplace provides for taste, cost, and convenience.”

To view this matter in a pessimistic light, it may not be realistic to expect FDA to add new food safety initiatives when it is far from clear that the agency can carry out existing ones.

More optimistically, calls like Mande’s may be the beginnings of a longstanding future policy effort to shift American diets from ultra-processed to minimally processed foods. That can only be good news for the produce industry.

It is now a matter of finding the right strategy to take advantage of this transition.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.