The empty definition behind ‘ultra-processed’

This op-ed penned by David Chavern, president and CEO the Consumer Brands Association, the trade association for America’s $2.1-trillion food, beverage and consumer products industry, discusses the glaring problems surrounding the term “ultra-processed” and shares his perspective on the importance of food processing.

David Chavern

Our milestone moments – announcing a promotion at the dinner table over a favourite meal, reaching for a pint of ice cream after a breakup, finally mastering the secret family recipe, watching your baby try their first solid food – all share a supporting cast: the foods we love.

Our favourite foods are embedded in those memories, reminding us of each moment. But recently, there’s been a growing effort not just to vilify the sensory elements that help us remember even the smallest moments more vividly, but to undermine our intelligence as consumers, attempting to throw the dignity of choice into question over an empty term.

As the trade association for the makers of America’s food, beverage, home and personal care items, we have to address the glaring problems with the term ‘ultra-processed’. It doesn’t carry one consistent, agreed-upon scientific definition, nor does it refer to a specific process or determine nutritional value.

Instead, it has infiltrated hashtags and trending topics, appearing in newsfeeds as a boogeyman set on undermining consumers’ autonomy to choose what best suits their dietary needs while attempting to discredit the actual attributes of processing, which ensures continued accessibility to shelf stability.

Food processing has been a crucial part of safely preparing our meals since humans started using fire to cook. It’s human nature to build, enhance and innovate. And just as we’ve expected and accepted innovation that fosters safety, accessibility, and affordability in every other aspect of our lives, how we get food on the table shouldn’t be any different.

Feeding our families has evolved as we increasingly need to do more with less time. Processing gives us that time back that we can use to create new memories.

Consumers are increasingly demanding nutrient-dense, affordable, and convenient food options, and understanding the value of processing can help consumers to feel empowered in choosing what best aligns with their unique nutritional goals.

Conflating processing as a whole

We don’t want to risk getting sidetracked by attempts to conflate processing as a whole – which encompasses the most basic safety measures like freezing and pasteurizing – with negative dietary outcomes when the former is an essential step in ensuring socio-economic equality in access to safe and quality food options.

Nearly a quarter of the adult population in the US is considered food insecure, and nutrient-dense food options that are affordable, shelf-stable, and easily prepared – regardless of kitchen access – are made possible by food processing.

I have the benefit of seeing firsthand how our industry is fully committed to delivering consumer value and investing in new ways to improve consumers’ quality of life. We understand the importance of advancing consumers’ nutritional literacy and increasing the access consumers have to product information.

Our industry continues to work toward fostering nutrition transparency through programs like SmartLabel so that consumers have the resources to make informed decisions about the food and beverage products they purchase.

The consumer-packaged goods industry is in endless pursuit of major innovations that consider evolving dietary needs and preferences. Efforts to restrict access based on the willful misunderstanding of and misapplied generalisations about processing stands to tell consumers we don’t trust their judgement, value their time or recognise that they’ve been reaching for these products because they know what they are, and they mean something to them.

Let’s let consumers decide how they want to fill their cabinets and what they want in life’s big moments.