NEW YORK — Ultra-processed foods like hot dogs, candies, and fruit-flavored beverages are some of the unhealthiest items on the menu. These types of foods have a link to a host of health issues ranging from obesity to cancer. Now, concerning new research by a team from New York University reveals there are woefully few federal and state policies in the U.S. addressing ultra-processed foods.
Researchers report only a minuscule number of U.S. policies account for ultra-processed foods, lagging behind numerous other countries including Belgium, Brazil, and Israel.
“In some countries, ultra-processed foods have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but in the U.S., few policies directly target ultra-processed foods,” says Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study, in a university release.
For decades, policymakers and health professionals alike have focused on singular nutrients like protein, fat, and carbohydrates in nutrition science and food policy. This latest work, however, adds to a growing body of evidence indicating there is more to dietary quality than nutrients.
“It’s clear that the extent of processing of a food can influence its health effects, independent of its food ingredients or nutrient contents. Ultra-processed foods generally contain ‘acellular nutrients’—nutrients lacking any of the natural intact food structure of the source ingredient—and other industrial ingredients and additives that together can increase risk of weight gain, diabetes, and other chronic diseases,” explains study co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, the Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Only a few countries around the globe directly regulate ultra-processed foods, but those that do have limited its consumption in schools and recommend avoiding ultra-processed food in dietary guidelines.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, meanwhile, which is used to inform the country’s food and nutrition policies, does not currently mention ultra-processed foods at all. However, the scientific advisory committee for the 2025-2030 U.S. Dietary Guidelines has been tasked with evaluating research related to ultra-processed foods consumption and its relation to weight gain.
To better understand how precisely U.S. policymakers have already addressed ultra-processed foods in policies, study authors collected all federal and state statutes, bills, resolutions, regulations, proposed rules, and Congressional Research Services reports covering “highly processed” and “ultra-processed” food.
This approach led to the identification of only 25 policies (8 at the federal level, 17 at the state) that had been proposed between 1983 and 2022. The majority of those policies (22 of 25) had been proposed or passed after 2011. This confirms that U.S. policy making on ultra-processed foods is a quite recent development.
Current U.S. policies on ultra-processed foods tend to mention such food items as being contrary to healthy diets. Most policies focused on healthy eating for children, including limiting ultra-processed foods in schools and teaching kids about nutrition. Another recurring theme was the higher prices of healthy foods in comparison to ultra-processed foods.
Only one analyzed policy (a Massachusetts school food bill) specifically defined ultra-processed foods, while another three policies sought to address the broader food environment by providing incentives to small retailers to stock healthier foods in lieu of ultra-processed goods.
“The emerging policy language in the U.S. on ultra-processed foods is consistent with international policies on the topic. We would urge a more robust discussion and consideration of ultra-processed foods for future policymaking,” Prof. Pomeranz concludes. “The United States should consider processing levels in school food policies—especially to update the ‘Smart Snack’ rules—and to ensure the U.S. 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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