Reformulation vs avoidance: Ultra-processed foods’ rapid Asian rise vilified, but total removal from food supply ‘unrealistic’

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

New research has criticised the rapid rise in ultra-processed food consumption in Asia over public health concerns, urging total avoidance of these foods. ©Getty Images
New research has criticised the rapid rise in ultra-processed food consumption in Asia over public health concerns, urging total avoidance of these foods. ©Getty Images

Related tags Ultra-processed food reformulation

New research has criticised the rapid rise in ultra-processed food consumption in Asia over public health concerns, urging total avoidance of these foods, but others are urging further research into the area in the name of food security before such an extreme measure is taken.

Researchers at Deakin University conducted a comprehensive review on ultra-processed foods and beverages sales in 80 countries, finding that although sales of these foods are still highest in high-income countries, the rate of sales growth is highest in lower-middle income regions such as Asia.

Between 2009 to 2019, Asian countries topped the list of ultra-processed food sales growth - Topping the list was India (7.8%), followed by Pakistan (6.3%) and Indonesia (4.5%), whereas growth was close to stagnant in places like Germany (0.0%) and the United States (0.4%).

According to the researchers, this is reason to worry from a public health perspective, and the advice is for ultra-processed foods to be avoided as much as possible.

“One of the reasons for the growth of these foods in lower-income countries, like those in Asia, is due to the low cost, and the reason for this in turn is that the ingredients to make these are so cheap,”​ the researchers told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“These ingredients are usually monocrops like soybeans and corn, and these are profitable for the industry as they can be sourced cheaply, so big food companies will roll with this and then extensively market these ultra-processed foods.

“Supermarkets do this marketing too by making the cheap ultra-processed foods more accessible to people such as price promotions, placing at aisles that are at children’s eye level, and selling at the counter to appeal to impulse buyers, especially in urban cities.

“The issue is that the overconsumption of these foods have been associated with many health issues such diabetes and heart disease, and the industrial processing also could add things like additives and plasticisers during the process – [so] the avoidance ultra-processed foods [is advised].”

The same advice on avoidance and reduction has been meted out by various other public health researchers, NOVA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), but others have urged for further and more comprehensive research to be conducted before rushing to blame ultra-processed foods or pull these entirely from any food supply, especially those that need them.

“There has been noscenario analysis or modelling conducted on the impacts of [a policy totally removing ultra-processed foods from the food system] on vulnerable groups, [such as] those with very low incomes,”​ said Professor Michael Gibney from the Institute of Food and Health in a separate report.

Low-income groups would be particularly vulnerable to any complete removal of ultra-processed foods due to both pricing concerns as well as shelf-life if they do not have access to any cold storage equipment in their homes.

“[There’s also the issue of] the global increase in time scarcity and the associated decline in home cooking arising from longer working hours and longer work commute – [Studies have shown that individuals with] higher time constraints are more likely to consume ultra-processed foods.

“Moreover, it remains unknown what the impact of this policy would have on land use, food markets, food trade, food prices, and retail systems [so] the realistic feasibility of this total avoidance strategy is worthy of debate.”

Is reformulation the answer?

As opposed to total removal of ultra-processed foods, the food industry in Asia has urged that reformulation be considered the way forward for these instead.

“The F&B industry is striving to improve the nutritional quality of their food and beverage portfolios while maintaining the existing taste and flavour profiles to not disaffect consumers​,”​ Food Industry Asia Policy (FIA) Director Steven Bartholomeusz told us.

“For example, our research shows that over 80% of companies in Singapore are reformulating their products, an indication of ongoing industry efforts to deliver better nutrition through the development of healthier products by accelerating innovation and reformulation.”

FIA data also revealed that 69% of food companies in India, 83% in Indonesia, 88% in Malaysia and over 90% in Thailand are doing the same, largely driven by existing consumer demand for such work.

“On average 78% of consumers in Asia want food companies to tweak their formulations to make products healthier [and] many companies have already begun the process of reformulation,”​ said FIA.

“These reformulation efforts cover a wide range of products, from non-alcoholic drinks to savoury snacks to confectionery to dairy and more, whereas top priorities include reformulating sugar and salt content, adding protein and fibre and so on.”

Again, academics are divided about this – the Deakin University team believes that reformulation is not sufficient to solve the core issues ultra-processed foods cause.

“[Food manufacturers] have focused more on nutrient-based responses, such as reformulation [which] depoliticises food environments by deflecting attention away from [core issues] including the wide availability and intensive marketing of ultra-processed foods,”​ said the researchers.

“Policy and regulatory actions in many countries are weak, with a skew towards lifestyle-behavioural interventions targeting individuals rather than more upstream ones targeting the commercial practices of the industry.

“We need more regulation of the system driving consumption of these foods, and these need to be in different ways including taxation and marketing control.”

Prof Gibney disagrees, urging that reformulation not be rejected outright just because of this.

“Reformulation is an alternative or a complementary strategy to improve the national diet supported by the FAO and World Health Organisation,”​ he said.

“[It is also not realistically feasible to] reject food reformulation as a contributor to improving nutritional profiles and consumers’ nutrient intake [outright].” 


Study 1: Ultra‐processed foods and the nutrition transition: Global, regional and national trends, food systems transformations and political economy drivers

Source 1: Obesity Reviews

Authors: Baker, P. et. al.


Study 2: Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues

Source 2: Current Developments in Nutrition

Authors: Gibney, M. J.

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