Ultra-Processed Foods in the Time of COVID-19
Updated: Jun 5, 2021
The consumption of ultra-processed foods is one of the main drivers of obesity and the non-communicable diseases (NCDs) epidemic worldwide. According to NOVA, a food classification system, ultra-processed foods “are made possible by the use of many types of additives, including those that imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or culinary preparations made from foods”. The process and ingredients used in production make these foods convenient (ready to consume, almost imperishable), attractive, and highly profitable due to their long shelf-life. These include snacks, ready-made meals, and many other products. These foods are nutritionally imbalanced which leads to a predisposition to obesity and NCDs, health conditions that compromise the immune system.
In the current context of COVID-19, obesity and NCDs are synergies of Covid-19, that is, they negatively interact with each other worsening the health outcomes of those affected. Thus, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that a healthy lifestyle is important in dealing with the pandemic. This background implies that the Food and Beverage Industry needs to collaborate and work alongside the Public Health Sector in promoting healthy eating. However, this has not been the case during the Covid-19 pandemic. Food companies and fast-food restaurants have taken advantage of the pandemic to increase marketing and sales of convenience foods.
Since the start of the pandemic, food companies and fast-food restaurants have been proactive in relief efforts, launching campaigns such as PepsiCo’s “Give Meals, Give Hope” (Give Meals, Give Hope) which has provided 45 million dollars in donations and 50 million meals to more than 40 countries. Likewise, other companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Mcdonald's have all been active in different relief efforts. However, do these companies’ social responsibility initiatives override the negative health impacts of consuming ultra-processed foods?
Many of these companies go a step further by obstructing Public Health Nutrition Policies that ban or discourage the production or sale of these foods. Through strategies such as lobbying, funding professional health organizations, or discrediting scientific evidence, food companies continue to promote the sale of ultra-processed foods despite evidence showing negative health consequences. In Latin America for example, due to income inequalities, many countries in the region have experienced a nutrition transition, from consuming healthy locally produced foods to consuming ultra-processed foods and beverages. This has increased the prevalence of obesity and NCDs which are the main causes of death in the region. In Brazil, 74% of the deaths are a result of NCDs, with 85% in Chile and 80% in Mexico. As a result, these countries among others in the region are at a greater risk of acquiring severe forms of Covid-19. This is concerning since the health systems in the regions are ill-equipped to manage this large-scale burden.
In addition, there is also growing concern with the food and nutrition among adolescents in the region. In a study conducted in Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, the pandemic has resulted in the closure of schools, decreased outdoor activities, and has increased consumption of ultra-processed foods which has been fueled by relentless marketing during this period. This is a cause for concern because adolescents are still at a developmental stage psychologically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. At this stage, they are establishing new life habits that will impact their future selves. Continued exposure to obesogenic diets will likely predispose them to obesity and NCDs. Most importantly, these foods exploit potentially harmful relationships with food, which affects emotional and mental health. These findings reinforce the importance of developing and implementing public health policies that foster healthy lifestyles (diet and exercise), especially during periods of isolation.
Ultra-processed foods are a leading cause of obesity and the NCDs epidemics worldwide. They are synergies of COVID-19.
The Food and Beverage Industry ignores regulations from the Public Health and Food and Nutrition officials.
They also ignore scientific evidence which exposes the public to the harmful health effects of ultra-processed foods. Instead, via various strategies, they lobby for the continued sale of these foods.
The marketing from food companies and restaurants exacerbates adolescent’s predisposal to developing NCDs and obesity in the future.