IFBA weighing in on ultra-processed foods

“The debate is polarised and nuance gets lost” – IFBA chief Rocco Renaldi sets out food, drinks giants’ case on UPFs. The International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) represents some of the world’s largest food and drinks makers….

Since Brazilian nutritionist Carlos Monteiro coined the term ultra-processed foods (UPF) in 2009 as the most processed category in the Nova classification system, research and campaigning have increasingly focused on health impacts that might be intrinsic to ultra-processed products as a category even before nutritional content is taken into account.

The fact the Monteiro definition of ultra-processing includes criteria outside the actual manufacturing stage, such as the marketing budgets behind the foods, the scale of the companies making them and their profits, speaks to the inherently political and cultural elements within the UPF agenda.

That has not prevented – and indeed may have fostered –  a proliferation of research purportedly supporting the case against UPFs, accompanied by increasingly vociferous campaigning. This has in turn begun to influence how public policy and health advice are being framed.

The response from major manufacturers to the increasingly hostile public debate around UPFs has been to say as little as possible, realising they will effectively be facing a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question. Defeating the contention that all UPFs are inherently bad for us is fairly straightforward but hard to do without conceding that some are.

The IFBA, through which eight multinational food and beverage manufacturers bolster their nutritional and environmental standards and engage with external stakeholders on health and sustainability issues, has decided the time has come to speak up.

IFBA secretary general Rocco Renaldi

In his first interview on the organisation’s change in tack, IFBA secretary general Rocco Renaldi spoke with Just Drinks about the challenges an overly simplistic demonisation of UPFs creates for manufacturers, how he believes this could undermine the role companies are playing in building a sustainable food system and how IFBA intends to engage in the UPF debate.

Just Food: Since the creation of the Nova classification of food processing in 2009, the contention ultra-processed foods (UPF) are intrinsically linked to negative health impacts has gained stronger traction among researchers, campaigners and, latterly, policymakers. The food industry’s response to date has been muted. Why has IFBA decided it is time to engage more actively in the debate?

Rocco Renaldi: We thought that we should put out some basic information from our perspective about food processing and the role of processed foods in creating a more sustainable food system. The first is food safety, food processing, in its most basic forms: be it drying, salting, cooking. The fundamental purpose of that since inception is food safety. And, today, processed food in many situations is the only safe food around the world.

So, there’s that basic fundamental dimension in this – food security in its broadest sense. Processed food provides critically affordable nutrition in a ubiquitous manner. And the last dimension is environmental.

Just Food: How will the IFBA be communicating its more positive narrative around processed foods?

Renaldi: We launched a new website on 1 February. It’s called Processed with Purpose and that contains our basic narrative. It also includes a simple video that talks about how processing works and why we need food processing. It’s sort of the basic education piece. We did a soft launch. We sent a note to our followers and stakeholders. We did a bit of social media work around it. That’s it.

It’s a repository of basic information about that and also what the companies are doing, in terms of moving towards an increasingly sustainable food system.

And, from there, we are simply increasingly going to talk about it, to have the voice of industry heard, and that’s going to be a nuanced, pragmatic voice. The core message is don’t overlook the critical role of food processors in the food system.

Just Food: In your view, are the researchers and campaigners advocating for a world without ultra-processed foods overlooking the need to feed a growing global population efficiently and that ultra-processed foods have a part to play in an efficient global food system?

Renaldi: I think some voices are overlooking that. Others are more nuanced and effectively say ‘yeah, we know we know that people will not just move away from these products and even need these products.’ So it depends on who you’re listening to. But it’s true that the debate is quite polarised as these things often get and the nuance does tend to get lost.

Just Food: Ultra-processed foods seem to be a definition that goes beyond the manufacturing process, relating to the types of companies that produce them, how they are marketed and the profitability of their manufacturers. References to the mass commercialisation of the foods and the business models of manufacturers feature prominently in the debate. Does this make the UPF agenda as much a political and policy debate as a technical one?

Renaldi: That definition comes out of the Nova classification. It includes that language. The paper that is being used as the standard scientific underpinning of the classification says processes and ingredients used for the manufacture of ultra-processed foods are designed to create hyper-palatable, highly profitable products, owned by transnational corporations using pervasive advertising and promotion. That effectively political approach is enshrined in the Nova definition so I’m not surprised that it’s being relayed…..

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