Ultra-processed foods. They’re easily accessible, delicious, and affordable. Available in virtually every community, the dominance of ultra-processed foods has taken the world by storm. But as tasty as they are, they’re extremely dangerous to our health. Healthy Living (HEALA) understands this, which has led to their fight to prioritize front-of-pack warning labels.
In February, the Department of Health gazetted a massive 238-page document for public comment, which aims to make major changes to the labeling of food items. They are proposing that food items be accompanied by mandatory front-of-package labeling (FOPL). HEALA has made massive efforts towards pushing this, and with the National Department of Health (NDoH) rallying behind this, it is certain to bring about a positive change. Before we get into this, let’s take a look at ultra-processed foods and the reason behind HEALA’s fight.
What Are Ultra-processed Foods?
These are typically packaged foods that are made from manufactured ingredients extracted from foods. These include fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They also contain additives such as artificial colors and flavoring. These ingredients are all combined to make something edible, but without maintaining the integrity or nutritional content of the original food. Common examples you’ll probably find in your kitchen include:
- Sweetened breakfast cereals
- White Bread
- Flavored potato chips
- Frozen ready-made meals
- Packaged soups
Why Are Food Labels so Important?
Food labels are legal requirements designed to help consumers become savvy about their food choices. They help you make smart decisions on the foods you consume, as they inform you of how much sugar, fat, and salt they contain. Basically, they help you ensure you’re eating a balanced diet. However, these labels can contain complex language, making it difficult for the average consumer to know exactly what’s in the food they’re consuming. This is very dangerous, especially considering that ultra-processed foods are the source of numerous health ailments.
Dangers of Ultra-processed Foods
A study has shown that ultra-processed foods are responsible for 21.8% of all preventable deaths from non-communicable diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, and colorectal cancer in men. A 2022 Neurology study found that a mere 10% increase in ultra-processed foods increased individuals’ risk of dementia. This equates to about 57,000 UPF deaths each year. Another 2022 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that these foods contributed to about 10% of deaths among those aged 30-69.
How High Is Consumption?
Ultra-processed food consumption is extremely high. With these foods making up nearly 90% of the energy we get from added sugars, they are a source of energy and dopamine boosts. Whenever we have sugar, it releases dopamine, giving us a “rewarding” feeling, and many UPFs contain enough sugar to not only fulfill our daily sugar intake recommendation but dangerously exceed it.
Right on the heels of this rising global trend, South Africans are now consuming an increasing amount of ultra-processed food. The dominance of these unhealthy products in stores, along with the products’ incomprehensible labels, leads to a wide range of health risks. Currently, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension are among the top 10 leading causes of death in South Africa. Ultra-processed foods directly impact the risk of these conditions, making them dangerous.
HEALA’s Call To Action
HEALA is calling for us to help support this movement.
The detailed, black food labels they are proposing will help consumers in a big way. These warning labels protect us from profit-driven corporate activity promoting harmful goods and unhealthy products. From products being phrased in misleading terms, to those offering their users false promises, these labels aim to help us make more health-conscious and informed decisions.
This is what motivated them to begin the #whatsinmyfood campaign. Their aim with this campaign was to ensure that South Africans are able to question the contents of their processed foods. This includes building an understanding of high sugar levels and high salt levels too. This step in the right direction will help keep the average person informed of exactly what they’re consuming on a daily basis.
For more information on this label implementation, be sure to visit HEALA’s website and social media pages. And remember, what we see outside is a reflection of what we put inside. It is very important that we prioritize what we’re consuming, and ensure that it aids our health, not deteriorates it.
The label implementation being a success will also make it easier for you to educate your kids on knowing what to look out for in these foods. Getting your kids familiar with nutritional information teaches them to make informed decisions on the foods they consume, even when you’re not around. This helps build a legacy of health consciousness, raising a generation of healthier kids.
Updated on food labelling in South Africa
In South Africa, where (current) regulations define it as what’s typically consumed by most people, it says that it has to be appropriate in order to not supersize eating. Serving size is determined by the manufacturer, as long as it is nutritionally appropriate. This is why it’s varied across different products and different brands.”
The public was asked to comment on South Africa’s Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs. Earlier versions of the regulations contained guidance on serving sizes, in line with Health Canada’s advice on maximum serving sizes for prepackaged foods, but in the final version of the regulations, there is no mention of serving size.
Header Image by Laura James on Pexels
- Almarshad, M.I., Algonaiman, R., Alharbi, H.F., Almujaydil, M.S. and Barakat, H., 2022. Relationship between ultra-processed food consumption and risk of diabetes mellitus: a mini-review. Nutrients, 14(12), p.2366.
- Contreras-Rodriguez, O., Solanas, M. and Escorihuela, R.M., 2022. Dissecting ultra-processed foods and drinks: Do they have a potential to impact the brain?. Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, 23(4), pp.697-717.