Eliminate junk food? US nutrition policies barely mention ultra-processed foods

NEW YORK –Ultra-processed foods like hot dogs, candy, and fruit drinks are some of the more unhealthy items on the menu. These types of foods have a link to a number of health problems ranging from obesity to cancer. Now, new research by a team from New York University reveals that there are woefully few federal and state policies in the United States that address ultra-processed foods.

Researchers report that only a tiny number of US policies account for ultra-processed foods, lagging behind several other countries including Belgium, Brazil and Israel.

In some countries, ultraprocessed foods have been integrated directly into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but few policies in the United States directly target ultraprocessed foods, says Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and lead author of the study, in a university release.

For decades, policy makers and health professionals have focused on single nutrients such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates in nutrition science and food policy. This latest work, however, adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that diet quality goes beyond nutrients.

It is clear that the extent to which a food is processed can influence its health effects, regardless of its food ingredients or nutrient content. Ultra-processed foods generally contain acellular nutrients, lacking the source ingredient’s intact natural food structure and other manufactured ingredients and additives that together can increase the risk of weight gain, diabetes and other chronic diseases, explains study co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Unhealthy and processed food, aggressive prostate cancer
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Only a few countries around the world directly regulate ultra-processed foods, but those that do have restricted their consumption in schools and recommend avoiding ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines.

The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, meanwhile, which is used to inform the country’s food and nutrition policies, currently doesn’t mention ultra-processed foods at all. However, the Scientific Advisory Committee for US Dietary Guidelines 2025-2030 has been tasked with evaluating research related to the consumption of ultra-processed foods and its relationship to weight gain.

To better understand how US policymakers have already addressed ultra-processed foods in policy, the study authors compiled all federal and state statutes, bills, resolutions, regulations, proposed rules, and Congressional Research Services reports covering highly processed and ultra-processed foods.

This approach led to the identification of only 25 policies (8 federal, 17 state) that had been proposed between 1983 and 2022. Most of these policies (22 out of 25) had been proposed or approved after 2011. This confirms that US ultra-processed food policy is a fairly recent development.

Current U.S. policies on ultra-processed foods tend to mention such foods as being against healthy diets. Most policies have focused on healthy eating for children, including limiting ultra-processed foods in schools and teaching nutrition to children. Another recurring theme has been the higher prices of healthy foods compared to ultra-processed ones.

school lunch
(Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels)

Only one policy analyzed (a Massachusetts school feeding law) specifically defined ultra-processed foods, while three other policies sought to address the broader food environment by providing incentives for small retailers to stock healthier foods in place of ultra-processed products.

Emerging US policy language on ultra-processed foods is consistent with international policies on the subject. We would like to urge a more robust discussion and consideration of ultra-processed foods for future decision-making, concludes Prof. pomeranz. The US should consider processing levels in school food policies, especially to update rules on smart snacks and to ensure US dietary guidelines reflect the evidence on ultra-processed foods and health.

The study is published in the American journal of preventive medicine.

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