Processed foods like Lunchables

In this photo illustration, a pack of Lunchables is displayed on April 10, 2024 in San Anselmo, California.

(Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Ultraprocessed Foods Corporations Cram Down Our Children's Throats

UPFs make up two-thirds of the calories consumed by children and teenagers in the United States.

About forty-five years ago, at a social gathering, I asked an executive of a Minneapolis-based large food processing company if he fed heavily sugared cereals to his children. He smiled as he shook his head. Smart person. His and other major companies producing what is now called Ultraprocessed Foods (UPFs) had scientists and labs. They knew that ever higher doses of sugars, fats, and salts were being poured into nutritionally stripped foods and deceptively promoted to youngsters on kiddy television. They profitably ignored the serious damage they were causing!

These companies’ marketeers succeeded in getting these children, as my mother would say, to turn their tongues against their brains. The children were also shown how to nag their parents into buying junk food and drink. In fact, Madison Avenue advertising firms would give high ratings for ads “with a high nag factor.”

It was about 1980 when obesity rates started rising at alarming rates. Now about 30% of adults are obese, another 35% are overweight. Recently, a Goldman Sachs study estimated that by 2028 up to 70 million Americans will be taking the new weight-loss drugs, whose longer-term effects are yet to be known. Their apparent present success in suppressing extra food intake is already worrying the fast-food chains like McDonald’s that thrive on selling huge cheeseburgers.

It was also about 1980 when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) staff and its leader, Dr. Michael Jacobson, were appearing in the mass media and on major national talk shows. They graphically showed the public the large amounts of fat, sugar, and salt that were in the hot dogs, potato chips, and soft drinks they consumed. Millions of Americans started changing their food purchases toward multi-grained breads and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Many people became vegetarians. But most consumers remained wedded to misleadingly promoted and greatly diluted UPFs, short on nutrition and long on harm to their health.

During recent decades there has been an increase in peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that certain foods you can easily buy in the markets can increase your life expectancy while others reduce your longevity. Long-time medical and science reporter/author Jean Carper boiled down these findings into a highly usable new little book titled, “100 Life or Death Foods: A Scientific Guide to Which Foods Prolong Life or Kill You Prematurely.” (See my recent column New Book: Choosing Regular Food to Extend Longevity, April 12, 2024).

On May 8, 2024 – the New York Times defined Ultraprocessed Foods (UPFs) as “using industrial methods and ingredients you wouldn’t typically find in grocery stores – like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and concentrated proteins like soy isolate. They often contain additives like flavorings, colorings or emulsifiers to make them appear more attractive and palatable. Think sodas and energy drinks, chips, candies, flavored yogurts, margarine, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausages, lunch meats, boxed macaroni and cheese, infant formulas and most packaged breads, plant milks, meat substitutes and breakfast cereals.”

The Times continued: “In a large review of studies that was published in 2024, scientists reported that consuming UPFs was associated with 32 health problems, with the most convincing evidence for heart disease-related deaths, Type 2 diabetes and common mental health issues like anxiety and depression.” Caution, not all UPFs are associated with these problems.

UPFs make up two-thirds of the calories consumed by children and teenagers in the United States. Still, the giant food companies are getting away with little regulation, especially for their heaviest advertising that pushes their profitable ultraprocessed foods. Have you ever seen TV ads for fresh carrots, radishes, celery, lentils, spinach, kale and asparagus? Unlikely. The mass merchandising ads go for foods, described by a report in the journal BMJ, as “designed by manufacturers to achieve a certain ‘bliss point,’ which causes us to crave and overeat them. They also tend to be low in nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

We are behind other governments in our official dietary guidelines. Canada and Mexico recommend avoiding or limiting UPFs while the U.S. guidelines make no mention of them. Such is the dominance of giant agribusiness corporations over the indentured U.S. Department of Agriculture and the mostly bought members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees.

This corporate interference also extends to constantly putting such UPFs into school lunch programs.

Absent taking over the 535 members of corporate Congress by 250 million eligible voters, we are left with parents and their children availing themselves of publications such as CSPI’s Nutrition Action newsletter to become smart buyers and consumers of safer, healthier, nutritious food. If you can, add a home garden to your food supply.

Some of these simple recipes, often called a Mediterranean diet, are in my “Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook,” (2020) with an introduction on how my mother educated us very early on to want to eat nutritious foods prepared to be delicious as well. She baked her own bread, cooked “from scratch” and avoided processed foods with unknown ingredients, such as hot dogs.

Our snacks were fresh fruits and vegetables, including chickpeas, munched while walking to school. For a sweet taste, we were treated to honey and maple syrup. We were taught not to whine because it wasn’t smart and didn’t get us anywhere.

Parents are protectors of their children. They have to be especially on guard to protect their children from pervasive direct mass marketing, using influencers, peer groups, and abduction of their youngsters into the Internet Gulag. The earlier in their child’s life that parents do their job, the easier it will be. Children so liberated can become active allies of Mom and Dad, showcasing their special knowledge. (See, “You Are Your Own Best Teacher! Sparking the Curiosity, Imagination, and Intellect of Tweens” by Dr. Claire Nader).

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