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Food, Farming and Nutrition

Article Abstracts
Mar 21, 2023

Food, Farming and Nutrition

Harvard Professor Says Processed Food Is Making Us Sick and It’s Time the Government Steps In

Article Abstracts
Feb 27, 2024

Chronic food illness kills up to 678,000 Americans each year—a toll higher than all of the combat deaths in every war in American history combined. Nutrition-related chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer also took an economic toll of an estimated $16 trillion from 2011 to 2020. The author of a new editorial in the Harvard Public Health journal argues that processed foods are making us sick, and action must be taken by the FDA and USDA.

Federal food law bans “any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render [a food] injurious to health.” Regulators have used that provision to crack down on contaminated foods containing toxic chemicals or microbes (e.g., Listeria and salmonella) that cause acute illness. However, these contaminants kill approximately 1,400 Americans each year, while 1,600 Americans per day die from chronic food illness.

Evidence is increasing that these chronic illnesses are caused by the substances in ultra-processed foods, which have become staples in the American diet. Ultra-processed foods (which are industrial formulations of ingredients from substances extracted from foods or synthesized in labs) range from heat-and-eat meals such as frozen pizza to sweetened breakfast cereals.

Jerold Mande, adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former senior adviser to the FDA commissioner and deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, writes in a new editorial that, “Is it time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use their authority under federal law to protect us from these highly processed foods.” Mande acknowledges that it is a paradigm shift for these organizations, “but it is also common sense: FDA and USDA must make at least as much effort preventing chronic food illness as they do acute food illness.”

In a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that investigated the cause of sharp obesity increases in the U.S., participants were randomly assigned to eat either minimally processed foods or ultra-processed foods matched for daily nutrients such as carbohydrates, sodium, fat, and sugar. Although daily nutrients were the same for both groups, the people who consumed the ultra-processed foods ate an extra 500 calories per day and began to rapidly gain weight. When the same people were later assigned to the minimally processed diet, they lost weight.

 

Our foods must continue to be delicious, affordable, and convenient—traits Americans appropriately demand—but can be eaten daily without making us sick.

 

Mande says that “[t]his is an important finding, because it raises the possibility that it’s the additives and processing—not just the percentage of fat or sugar in a diet—that makes us sick. More research is urgently needed.” Mande argues that “[o]ur regulatory agencies clearly have the legal authority to take on this threat to public health,” citing a 1958 Congressional amendment that provides that no food additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to cause cancer when ingested by humans or animals.

Citing the precedent for using food safety laws to regulate chronic food illness, Mande refers to the 2015 FDA ban of artificial trans fats on the grounds that it caused heart disease, another diet-related chronic illness.

“Our foods must continue to be delicious, affordable, and convenient—traits Americans appropriately demand—but can be eaten daily without making us sick. Our laws make clear that action is required. What’s missing is leadership and funding.” For leadership, Mande calls out the FDA Commissioner and Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA and says that they must give food companies legal incentives to create foods that promote health and well-being. As for funding, Mande argues that the President and Congress must provide a budget of at least $200 million in the fiscal 2024 budget in order to address chronic food illness.

“It won’t be easy. In last year’s budget, the president asked for $135 million to cover USDA nutrition security, FDA nutrition regulation, and NIH nutrition research. He received $0.”

Mande says there is precedent for FDA and UDSA collaborating in food-related crisis, citing the 1993 deadly Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) outbreak from contaminated Jack in the Box hamburgers. The two agencies worked together to keep STEC out of meat, and “[o]ur food is safer now due to USDA’s stronger food safety laws, bigger budget, and effective collaboration with FDA.” He says now that model must be applied to address chronic food illness, and these two agencies must work together to “design a 21st century food safety system to protect us not just from acute cases of food poisoning but also from the deadly toll of chronic exposure to ultra-processed food. Our lives literally depend on it.”

REFERENCES

Mande, J. (2023, March 1). Processed foods are making us sick. It’s time for the FDA and USDA to step in. Harvard Public Health. https://harvardpublichealth.org/nutrition/processed-foods-make-us-sick-its-time-for-government-action

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