Ultra-processed Food

– in Westminster Hall at 4:52 pm on 21 June 2023.

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Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge 4:52, 21 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the health impacts of ultra-processed food.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I have wanted to have this debate for some time and am grateful for the opportunity to lead it today. I have been deeply concerned about the impact of ultra-processed food on health outcomes and therefore on the NHS. I want to join the debate that others are having in the public domain. We need to ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of addressing ultra-processed food and its health impacts.

Let me explain a little more about ultra-processed food, as it surprises me how few people know what it is. It is food that dominates the shelves of our supermarkets, much of the food advertising on television, and the multi-buy offers that customers see as they get close to the checkout. It is food that takes up half the average UK diet, with the largest consumption by children. It is food that is linked to heart, kidney and liver disease, cancer, depression and obesity. It is an underlying reason for many poor health outcomes. It is food that has been processed so much that it has little health value; the main ingredients include additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. Those ingredients destroy the integrity of the food itself, but do nothing for its nutritional value, as they are being whipped up into something more appetising with the help of emulsifiers.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that there is a case for looking again at our food labelling laws, and perhaps for requiring ultra-processed food to carry a health warning rather like the warning required on cigarette packets?

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and will come to his point a bit further on in my speech.

Ultra-processed food tends to be high in fat, salt and sugar, and is highly addictive. There is fairly low awareness of what ultra-processed food is, but it is familiar in our shopping trolleys. It includes pizza, ice cream, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, pre-packaged meals, sausages and other reconstituted meat products, and some alcoholic drinks—shock, horror—including whisky, gin and rum. Foods such as plain oats, cornflakes and shredded wheat become ultra-processed when the manufacturer adds sugar, flavourings or colourings. Plain yoghurt is minimally processed, but when sweeteners, preservatives, stabilisers or colourings are added, it becomes ultra-processed.

Although there is no universally agreed definition of ultra-processed foods, the above is a good description. They are all foods that we mainly love, but that are not good for us if they form part of a staple diet, and the UK is one of the biggest consumers per head of ultra-processed foods in Europe. Many of the things I have talked about are things that I have purchased myself and are in my shopping trolley half the time.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. We have a lot of these debates, and one issue with ultra-processed food is that it is ultra-addictive—people want more of it, and we cannot help ourselves—but we do not treat it as we treat other ultra-addictive things like cigarettes and alcohol, although the health implications could be just as serious.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. Again, we are having the same conversation and I hope to answer her question later in the debate.

Ultra-processed food makes up half of the total purchased dietary energy in the UK. In fact, when it comes to UK children, more than 60% of the calories consumed comes from ultra-processed foods such as frozen pizza or fizzy drinks. All that food is linked to obesity, which causes me great concern. In England, 64% of adults and 40% of 10 to 11-year-olds are either obese or overweight. Those figures are taken from the Dimbleby report. They are staggering.

Figures from 2019-20 show that 1.5 million years of healthy life are lost to diet-related illnesses every year. Tackling obesity costs the NHS about £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer. To put it starkly, it is a ticking timebomb. Some might say that the ticking has stopped and the bomb has already exploded.

Some 100,000 people have a stroke each year. There are 1.3 million stroke survivors in the UK, thanks to the advances of medicine and medical interventions such as blood pressure tablets, statins and so forth. Children who have high levels of ultra-processed food consumption have been shown to have high levels of cholesterol, increased weight and tooth decay. Obesity has been brought to the fore due to covid. Living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death, with risks growing substantially as body mass index increases.

The cost of all that to the NHS is significant, from prescription drugs and GP and out-patient appointments to the orthopaedic impacts on limbs of weight bearing. Of course, the greatest impact is on NHS hospital admissions. Tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges that this country faces. Ultra-processed food is one of the main routes to all obesity issues, because the food is mainly high in fat, salt and sugar. It is marketed aggressively, to the detriment of our health, feeding a growing obesity crisis and feeding our arteries full of fat.

The food supply chain endorses and promotes products that are linked to serious health outcomes, marketing products for which the motivation is profit over health. Certainly at the cheaper end of the market, ultra-processed food does not provide a fully nutritious meal. The marketing and branding of ultra-processed food is relentless. Have we ever seen a high-profile marketing campaign for anything that falls off a tree or comes out of the ground? The answer is no. Instead, we see highly aggressive campaigns selling us the dream of so-called delicious meals. In reality they are highly addictive foods and, without moderating consumption, contribute significantly to poor health outcomes.

I am slightly disappointed that the Government are not proceeding with the plan to ban two-for-one junk food deals. That plan, which has been delayed, would have prevented shops from selling food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar through multi-buy deals. However, at a time when household budgets are under continuing pressure from the global rise in food prices, it would not be right to restrict those options. The principal issue for health outcomes is not so much two-for-one deals anyway; it is the food itself, and we should not lose sight of that. Buying multi-deals does not matter; it is the product itself that matters. That is what we should focus on: trying to eliminate addictive products that are creating poor outcomes for our children.

A good step forward would be an advertising watershed—a 9 pm watershed has been mooted—that would restrict the TV advertising of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, not forgetting those online. Current advertising regulations do not go far enough in protecting children from a significant number of unhealthy food adverts. I think that we have all seen the continual adverts for pizzas when we watch family programmes, certainly at the weekend. Those should not be allowed. Half the time, I am moments away from going online to order a couple of those pizzas, but I don’t do that any more.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

Jim, it would be two.

Children and young people are not sufficiently protected from exposure to adverts for unhealthy products. It has been pointed out to me that Government research shows that TV and online advertising restrictions on food that is high in sugar and salt could reduce the number of children with obesity by more than 20,000. I therefore urge the Minister to look at that and bring the timeline forward. I think at the moment it is going to be 2025, but we could and must move faster. There should be a watershed for adverts for both ultra-processed food and products high in fat, sugar and salt, sooner rather than later.

A bigger light must be shone on the manipulative marketing tactics that companies use to lead us into consuming and over-consuming foods that are bad for our health. My office manager and my comms guy are advocates of disgusting microwave burgers, which further strengthens my resolve on the matter. When I first looked at the product that they are addicted to and that they shove in that microwave, I thought, “What is not to love?” It says that it is 100% beef—it tells me three times that it is 100% beef—and with that look, I was hooked. I thought, “I want one of those,” but then I read the side of the packet. It is in fact a composition of beef fat, soya protein, salt, wheat flour, stabiliser E451, dextrose, sugar, egg white powder, yeast extract, something called hydrolysed soya protein, barley malt extract and flavourings. It is 44% beef, so not quite the 100% beef that was advertised. In fact, it is a concoction of emulsifiers, preservatives, colourings and other things, which made it look like the tastiest 100% beef burger in the world. The beef was 100% beef, but it was actually only 44% of the burger itself. That is incredibly misleading. I nearly went out and bought it myself.

The obesity crisis is not helped by the overly aggressive marketing of highly addictive food. Let’s face it: if advertising did not work, companies would not do it. That is what encourages us to go out and buy such products. We saw it in the cigarette market. Changes were needed to advertising, starting way back in 1965, when the poor health outcomes from smoking were being understood. It was many years before one of the biggest health interventions, which was the ban on smoking in public places in 2007. I was one of those smokers many, many years ago. I think I gave up before it was banned in public places, but I can tell hon. Members that smoking is highly addictive, and it was sold to be highly addictive.

When I worked in logistics, the company pushed out the cigarettes into big lorries, which took them to the centres to sell. Even there, packs of 200 cigarettes were handed out to employees as an incentive at the end of the week: “Well done—they have done a great job.” People were allowed to smoke in their offices, although I believe that at the time they were not supposed to. Unhealthy food is now being peddled and pushed in a similar way. We really have to think about that. Something very akin to what happened with cigarettes is happening with ultra-processed food.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. Does she agree that if we are to urge that ultra-processed food should carry with it a label warning, that warning should be in a typeface large enough to be read without the use of a magnifying glass, so people know what they are buying before they purchase it?

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

I do not have the answer to that one. I will leave it to a conversation between the Minister, me and others whether that is the way we need to go with what the labelling looks like. Whatever the decision, I agree that it needs to be clear that that food is not 100% beef—that it is, in fact, 56% manufactured food and a tiny percentage of nutritious food. Something needs to be done to highlight that.

Many people will be saying that they did not know that the foods I have listed were ultra-processed. Let us take those lovely fruit yoghurts. I have been eating them for years and had not realised how processed they were. The simple fact is that you just need to buy plain yoghurt, put some fruit and oats on top and it is a really tasty product.

The impact of the intervention to ban cigarettes in 2007 was estimated by the British Medical Journal to be 1,200 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks in the year following the ban. In the three months after the ban, there was a 6.3% drop in the volume of cigarettes sold in England. I believe it was around that time—it might have been a few years before—that I gave up smoking. The interventions at the time were working.

Is that what we need to do now? The Minister will be pleased to hear that I am not a fan of the nanny state, but I am a fan of the watershed and that is what is on my wish list. As for the regulators, they need to focus less on the ingredients in our food and more on how the processing of the food sold to us has an impact on our health. They need to address misleading health claims and confusing nutritional information that dominate many products found on supermarket shelves. Indeed, that leads into the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight about how labelling what is in the product has to be clearer.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank the hon. Member for being so generous with her time. She says she is not a fan of the nanny state, but we would not market cigarettes and alcohol to children, because we know the harm they do to them. Children are not allowed to buy vaping products, because of the harm they do to them. Yet we have this ticking time bomb. I think she said that 40% of children are overweight. Surely that is a group of people we need to take care of. Maybe adults can make their own choices, but we are talking about children here.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

I thank the hon. Member for that powerful intervention. I believe that before we get into nanny statedom, those manufacturers need to step up and wake up to what they are selling. They are peddling a false dream. This is not about wrestling with one’s conscience; they need to think about the impact of what they are selling to people. That is what they have to face up to first. I believe I am coming on to that further on in my speech.

We have talked about misleading health claims. Children are regularly exposed to products that extol their own virtues but are in fact the opposite: rich in saturated fats, trans fatty acids, added sugar and salt. If a manufacturer were to put labelling telling us that that was what was in their product, I do not think any of us would go out and buy it. We are being sold something completely different from what is actually in the product.

We should not forget emulsifiers, which hold ultra-processed foods together and improve appearance and texture. In other words, emulsifiers make a product taste and look like the food we want it to be. There is growing evidence of their impact on an increased risk of cancer—notably breast cancer—and cardiovascular diseases. Meanwhile, aspartame—I do not know how to pronounce it—is the most controversial ultra-processed food; a sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar. When I gave up smoking, I used fizzy drinks to help me through that process. Hon. Members will guess that I am now near enough addicted to those fizzy drinks.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

It is, hence my sparkling water, which I was rushing out for. In May 2023, the World Health Organisation said it was concerned about the long-term use of aspartame as it increased the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and mortality, although the UK’s Food Standards Agency has accepted that it is safe.

Much of this food is our everyday pleasure, so I am not advocating that we tell people what to eat and not to eat. I am hugely conscious of the cost of living pressures and the ways that people are trying to make changes and save money. Consumed in isolation and moderation, this food is fine. The problem is when it takes over our lives—and it has.

The key challenge is to get supermarkets to put healthy products on multi-buys, encourage a promotional spend shift to healthier food products and focus on making food more affordable. Promotional deals are easy ways to make profit for the supermarkets, peddling products that, to them, are low cost but high margin, and have no nutritional value. There is no doubt that modern living and work patterns mean that we find it difficult to find time to cook unprocessed foods instead of purchasing ultra-processed foods, as they are quicker to cook, ready to eat and cheaper. I do not think that there is anyone here who has not left Westminster on a Wednesday night and probably just picked up a ready meal because it is the quicker and easiest thing to do.

I am pleased to have read that the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which provides recommendations on dietary guidelines, is carrying out a scoping review of the evidence on processed foods and health. It aims to publish its initial assessment in the summer of 2023. TV medic Dr Chris van Tulleken has also been vociferous on ultra-processed foods, and long may that continue. The facts are there. It is a serious crisis when one in three children are obese by the time they leave primary school.

I want to see the private sector lead by example, with manufacturers stepping up, taking responsibility and stopping packaging and promotional techniques that lure customers towards ultra-processed food with no nutritional value. We need to address the potential loopholes and displacement from marketing regulation of food that is higher in fat, sugar and salt when selling the dream of a 100% beef burger when, in fact, it is not. Regulators need to focus more on how the processing of food impacts our health outcomes. Will the Minister consider introducing the important advertising watershed sooner rather than later? We cannot afford to delay. The obesity figures speak for themselves; the cost to the NHS speaks for itself. Also on my wish list is considering introducing a reduction target to keep focused on ensuring that ultra-processed food consumption levels in the UK are at a healthier level.

I am deeply concerned about the impact that such food is having on health outcomes and the impact on the NHS. We need to continue the debate, as the simple fact is that 64% of adults in England and 40% of 10 to 11-year-olds are either obese or overweight. That is staggering. To me, we are not far off from the time for urgent intervention like we had in the cigarette industry. An article was written on Monday, independent of my securing this debate, in which I read someone saying very similar things. The obesity crisis is truly shocking and cannot be ignored. The role of ultra-processed foods in that is significant, as is the role of the food supply chain. The food supply chain needs to step up and play its part in the fight against obesity before the Government need to intervene and start to tackle the ultra-processed foods like they did with tobacco— to basically get in there. The Government will have to intervene at some point if the industry do not get a grip.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I will start to call the Front Benchers at 5.33 pm, with five minutes for the SNP and Labour, because it is only a 60-minute debate. If we do speeches within five-and-a-half minutes, everyone will get in.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:13, 21 June 2023

It is indeed a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank Suzanne Webb for raising the issue. She comprehensively set the scene and, with the interventions, added to the understanding of why the debate is so important. My research for today mimicked some of the research carried out for the debate on fatty livers a number of weeks ago, and the links are clear. I noted during that debate that my good friend the Minister of State, Will Quince, noted that there is no definition of “ultra-processed”. That is an important starting point so that we can begin to address the problems of a highly ultra-processed diet.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge referred to diabetes, and others have as well. I am a diabetic today because for a long period of time—probably a number of years, I suspect—I was the person who bought a Chinese five nights a week with two bottles of coke. That was the way I was; that was the way I lived. It saved me going home to get something to eat, and I ate in the office. Added to that was probably a fair level of stress, and all of a sudden I was almost 17½ stone. I never realised just how the weight had crept up, and I went to see my doctor. My doctor always says “I’ve got good news and bad news for you.” I said, “Well, tell me the good news first.” “The good news,” he said, “is that you’ve got a heart like an ox. But the bad news is that you’re a diabetic.” That is a fact of life.

That was my lifestyle. I was to blame; I will not blame anybody else for that. I am not blaming the Chinese people who sold me the Chinese, nor the shop that gave me two bottles of coke, because it was something I did and I realised what was happening. I am now on medication, so that has helped to administer and control my diabetes. The point that I am making is that we have to be careful what we eat. What we eat is what we are, and, indeed, what we become.

As has been noted, the UK is at the top for ultra-processed foods in Europe. When I say that, I include packaged baked goods, snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals containing food additives, dehydrated vegetable soups and reconstituted meat and fish products. They often contain high levels of sugar, fat and/or salt, but lack vitamins and the fibre that I, as a diabetic, need. Those were all noted in the BMJ report on ultra-processed foods in 2019.

Such foods are thought to account for around 25% to 60% of the daily energy intake in many countries. Previous studies have linked ultra-processed foods to higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some cancers, but firm evidence is still scarce. There is some evidential base to be arrived at.

Results in the BMJ report showed that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food in a diet was associated with significantly higher levels of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, with increases of 12%, 13% and 11% respectively. I am my party’s health spokesperson, so I am very conscious of health issues. In contrast, the researchers found a significant association between unprocessed—or minimally processed—foods and lower risks of all reported diseases.

Results from another test showed that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods—more than four servings per day—was associated with a 62% increased risk of all causes of mortality, compared with a lower consumption of fewer than two servings per day. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Stourbridge referred to ordering a couple of pizzas. I was not responding to her facetiously, but the point I am making is that, yes, it is easy, and, as Carol Monaghan said, when people start, they want to keep on eating, and that is a problem.

For each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk increases by 18%. It is clear that more research should be done, and I join colleagues who have spoken—including the hon. Member for Stourbridge—and of all those who will speak afterwards to ask the Minister, who always responds very positively and helpfully, and our Government, to get the information and begin the public awareness campaign that must follow those results.

The health of our nation is the wealth of this nation—this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and we must take the necessary steps to make people aware of the dangers of their diet choice, because it is a choice. Hopefully today is the next step, perhaps maybe the first step, in that journey to better health.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 5:18, 21 June 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb for securing this important debate on a subject that is really close to my heart.

Most people are now aware of the health impacts of HFSS diets, yet it is increasingly clear that the primary cause of diet-related disease is not a diet that is high in fat, salt and sugar, but rather one that is high in UPF. However, as has been said, I wonder how many people know what UPF is and what it stands for, even though it represents 60% of the average UK diet.

To put it simply, if a food is wrapped in plastic, has at least one ingredient that we would not usually find in a standard home kitchen, or has a health claim on the packet, it is likely to be UPF. Much of it will be familiar as junk food, but there are also plenty of organic, free-range and “ethical” ultra-processed foods that might be sold as healthy, nutritious, or useful for weight loss.

Home-made chips, lasagne and cake are not the same as their UPF equivalents. The processing is what is important—so we do not have to all give up cake, as long as we make it ourselves. When we think about food processing, most of us think about the physical and chemical things done to food, but the definition of ultra-processing includes its purpose: to create profitable, convenient, hyper-palatable products. Those indirect processes—marketing, legal challenges and lobbying—all make the issue of how to tackle the health impacts of ultra-processed foods more complicated.

The evidence on ultra-processed food is robust. It is not just a couple of trials; hundreds of papers and high-quality data show the wide-ranging health impacts. Many people are unaware of how artificial the designs of ultra-processed foods are. They typically contain little, if any, whole food. The food’s structure is destroyed by industrial processing, meaning that UPFs are usually soft. They are therefore easy to eat quickly, which means that people eat far more calories per minute and do not feel full until long after they have finished eating. UPFs contain drastically reduced levels of phytochemicals, which are essential for dietary health and cannot be replaced through supplementation. There are also extensive environmental effects. The monocultural food system necessary for the production of UPFs is a leading cause of declining biodiversity and the second-largest contributor to global emissions.

If they are so bad for us, why do we eat them? Highly processed foods are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. People from households with lower financial security or food security report consuming fewer fruit and vegetables, less fish and more sugar-sweetened soft drinks than those who are more financially secure.

The rise of UPFs is an emergent property of today’s commercialised and commodified food systems. Many people feel food systems have become more profit driven, with natural and fresh food less accessible. For example, buy-one-get-one-free offers in supermarkets often tempt us to buy more but, in 2015, supermarket promotions in Britain were the highest in Europe, with around 40% of our food expenditure going on promoted products.

Lord Hague recently wrote a fabulous article that argued that it now seems extraordinary to us that tens of millions of people used to smoke cigarettes without realising the serious harm they could cause. I suspect that when people look back a few decades from now, they will have a similar sense of incredulity about the food we eat.

One in 20 UK cancer cases is down to excess weight, which is the second largest preventable cause of cancer after smoking. Diet-related disease is the leading cause of early mortality, with the primary cause being high-UPF diets. Two in five children in England face ill health as a result of the food they eat. Those children are five times more likely to develop serious and life-limiting diet-related conditions in adulthood.

We must re-design our food system to put health first. That our diets should be made up mainly of real food seems simple. Individual responsibility is important but, to facilitate it, we must ensure that as many children as possible finish school with the knowledge and ability to cook healthy and nutritious food for themselves. I am arguing for a proactive approach to public health that equips people with the tools and information they need to make informed, healthier choices. We must also increase the powers of local authorities to empower their communities to address their unique health challenges by, for example, tackling the flood of unhealthy food and drink advertising in outdoor areas, especially near areas where children congregate.

The levy on sugar and soft drinks has been an enormous success. The sugar removed from the national diet as a result is estimated to be equivalent to the weight of 4,000 double-decker buses, without leading to a fall in sales. Fiscal measures can incentivise—

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s flow. Sugar may have been removed from soft drinks, but other things have gone in. We have already heard about aspartame, which is a particularly horrible sweetener. We know that the levy has taken a huge amount of sugar out, but it has not had any impact on obesity, particularly childhood obesity, so maybe we need to look at other things too.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. If I had my way, fizzy drinks would be banned from all schools and would be hugely discouraged wherever they are sold, but at least the money raised from that tax helps to educate people that we need to look at what we are drinking and eating.

I will not take up more time, but I want to make the case that we have good reason to look closely at the food that finds its way on to the nation’s plates, and we should take ways to tackle the health impacts of ultra-processed foods seriously, renew our commitment to halving childhood obesity by 2030, reduce diet-related inequality and create a long-term shift in our food culture.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash 5:24, 21 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I could not miss the opportunity to progress my argument about the importance of tackling obesity, and today’s debate, which was so aptly brought to this Chamber by my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb, provides just that opportunity to discuss the ultra-processed food that has an impact on everybody’s diets.

I welcome the premise that if we want a wealthy nation, we need a healthy nation, as I am sure everybody in this room would agree. Obesity and related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, are the most prominent health impacts of poor diets, which are driven by high levels of consumption of products that are highly processed and contain unhealthy levels of fat, salt and sugar. The term “ultra-processed foods” comes from the NOVA food classification system, which was originally developed by researchers in Brazil. Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients and, as we have heard, tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. Such foods generally have a long shelf life. This is how I define the term: if there is a word that someone cannot pronounce when they look at the contents list on a package, the food is ultra-processed.

The vast majority of ultra-processed foods are high in fat, salt and sugar—HFSS, which is the well-established term to refer to foods that negatively impact on people’s health. It has been known for decades that products high in fat, salt and sugar have a negative impact on the health of the nation, and the nutrient profiling model underpins the existing and planned legislation to improve the food system. That includes now-delayed measures to protect children from seeing junk food adverts on TV and online, and to prevent two-for-one offers. My plea to the Minister today is: can we look at the timescales again? They are far too distant in the future and, as I say, the health and wealth of our nation is far too important.

A recent report by the Obesity Health Alliance argued that obesity is the new smoking. That comparison was reinforced by the announcement of £40 million to pilot ways to make the newest and most effective obesity drugs accessible for eligible patients. There is acceptance that obesity is a disease and should be treated with drugs, in the same way that lung disease is treated with drugs. Following that argument through, immense effort has gone into stopping smoking measures and reducing exposure to cigarettes, so immense effort should now be put into reducing everyone’s exposure to foods that are more likely to cause obesity—that is, ultra-processed foods.

The health and economic impacts of obesity are devastating. Obesity is a force multiplier on fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer, which puts ever-increasing pressure on the NHS. The combined cost of obesity to the Treasury—that is, through the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions and the economy as a whole—is predicted to reach £58 billion a year, and I fear that that is probably a very conservative projection. Those who are obese cost the NHS twice as much as those who are not, and it has been estimated that those who are obese take four extra sick days a year, which equates to 37 million sick days across the UK working population. Those stats are clearly very concerning, and there needs to be a collective effort to tackle this widespread problem. If action is not taken now, we will embed ill health and low productivity in generations to come.

A few weeks ago, BBC’s “Panorama” highlighted just how harmful ultra-processed foods are and how they contribute massively to diet-related ill health. However, as we have heard, they are among the most profitable foods that companies can make. This may sound unlikely, but there is willingness among food manufacturers to reformulate their products. However, they want a level playing field. We have a proven model in the soft drinks industry levy, so let us use that as a basis for the reformulation of ultra-processed food and provide manufacturers with a level playing field, because no company is willing to step out of line and lead the way. If consumption of ultra-processed food continues at the current rate and the obesity rate continues to rise, our nation will be economically poorer and very unhealthy.

I will be bold and state my belief that this country is addicted to ultra-processed foods, similar to the way it was addicted to smoking in past decades. We tackled smoking addiction by intervention; it is now time to tackle ultra-processed food addiction by intervention, too.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 5:30, 21 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr Huq. As many Members know, the subject of food and nutrition is close to my heart, and not just because I enjoy eating good food. I chair the all-party parliamentary food and health forum, which is discussing holding a joint meeting with the all-party parliamentary group on obesity on this very subject. I am therefore really grateful to Suzanne Webb for securing the debate. I know that the Minister’s closing remarks will be of interest to the Members here, to people throughout the nations, and to both all-party groups.

There can be no doubt that ultra-processed foods have created a looming health crisis that has cost implications for the future of our public services, particularly our NHS. With more than half the calories consumed by the average person in the UK coming from ultra-processed foods, and with research from The BMJ linking these foods to early death and poor health, we really cannot afford to be complacent.

As we have heard, ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that people would not add when cooking food themselves. Many would not recognise the names of these ingredients, many of which are chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. Research suggests that these additives could be responsible for other negative health effects, with several studies showing links between larger amounts of ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular disease and death, and the more of them a person eats, the greater the risk. The words of Professor Tim Spector, professor of epidemiology at King’s College London, are alarming. He said:

“In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought. We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia”.

Let that sink in. Quite frightening.

Buying processed foods can lead to people eating excess amounts of sugar, salt and fat, often unaware of how much has been added to the foods they are buying and eating. Scotland, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, has the highest obesity levels in the OECD countries, so we have a bit of work to do. Public Health Scotland found that children from the most deprived backgrounds were almost three times as likely to be at risk of obesity as those from the least deprived. According to the Scottish health survey, in 2021 two thirds of adults were overweight, similar to or marginally higher than the rates recorded every year since 2008. We are not making much progress in tackling the issue. Men have consistently shown higher prevalence of being overweight than women each year since 2008. One third of children are overweight, and I have no doubt that diet, and overprocessed foods in particular, is a major factor.

I want the UK Government to implement a sustainable food strategy that targets products that are high in sugar and ultra-processed foods. Our colleagues in Holyrood published the Good Food Nation Bill and passed it unanimously, enshrining in law the Scottish Government’s commitment to Scotland being a good food nation, where people in every walk of life take pride and pleasure in and benefit from the food they produce, buy, cook, serve and eat each day.

Education and consumer knowledge are important tools in the fight against ultra-processed foods, but accessibility and price are also key. A few weeks ago, in another debate, I pointed out that for many living in poverty, eating healthy food is a secondary consideration to eating at all. Access to healthy food should be a right, not a privilege.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

We have talked a lot about children, and there are a few issues there. Children who are obese are less able to exercise, which continues the cycle, and of course this is made more difficult in areas of deprivation. Some Members know that I coach gymnastics locally. We see children, some of them very young, who struggle to exercise because they are overweight. We need serious action.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I agree entirely; the only thing I would add is that not only is it important for children to exercise, but when they do they develop habits that stay with them for their lifetime. We have to crack the children issue at an early age.

On a positive footnote—I will get hell for this when I get home—I am pleased to say that our household contains a 19-year-old who has much healthier eating habits than I had as a 19-year-old male, all those decades ago. If I ask him before going to the shops what he would like, I am invariably told, “Raspberries, strawberries and grapes,” whereas I would have asked for chocolate bars and cans of fizzy juice.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

They are, I know. That leads in nicely to my next point, which is that the situation is not helped by food inflation: 70% of households are now worried about food and drink costs. This is frightening and does not help us to tackle the food crisis. The impact of deprivation on nutrition, diet and obesity rates is deeply concerning. With unhealthy food often cheaper and more accessible than healthier alternatives, it is little wonder that the UK is one of the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods in Europe.

We must act now, before it is too late. While many of the policy levers are devolved, several key factors, such as advertising, are determined here. I call on the Government to prioritise children’s health and to protect youngsters from junk food advertising on TV and online. Health inequalities cannot be separated from poverty, so we must also tackle the underlying causes of that, which includes ending poverty, supporting fair wages, and improving physical and social environments, as well as public education.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 5:36, 21 June 2023

It is good to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I commend Suzanne Webb for securing this crucial debate and for all the work that she and others in the Chamber today are doing on this important topic. We have had a small but perfectly formed debate. I thank my hon. Friend Jim Shannon and Jo Gideon; Maggie Throup, who recently led for the Government on these issues and maintains a keen interest in these matters, which is good to see; and Martyn Day, who leads on health issues for the Scottish National party. I also thank Sir Greg Knight and Carol Monaghan for their interventions. All made crucial points.

Ultra-processed foods are defined as foods that tend to include additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking. They include, but are not limited to confectionery, fried snacks and processed meats. Typically, they are produced to be convenient, quick to eat and appealing. Diets that revolve around UPFs can lead to poor health outcomes, as we have heard, and leave less room for more nutritious meals. We know that balance is essential to a healthy diet, so for most people, cutting out UPFs entirely is not a realistic option. What matters is supporting people to make informed, healthier choices and addressing the wider social determinants that influence their ability to lead a healthy, active life.

That action is important because rising obesity rates pose a profound threat to public health. I would argue that the Government have, unfortunately, responded to this threat wrongly by delaying the ban on junk food advertisements targeted at children and then scrapping the health disparities White Paper. Those are retrograde steps. Instead, the Government have announced a series of pilots, most recently built around the weight loss drug semaglutide, but the reality is that drugs of that sort, while useful for acute cases, are not long-term population-level fixes; they address the extreme end of the problem rather than the cause. My first question to the Minister is: beyond those pilots, what action are the Government taking to tackle rising obesity rates across the United Kingdom? The Government pledged to tackle childhood obesity in their 2019 general election manifesto, but cases have increased, so does the Minister recognise that more needs to be done to improve public health?

I am proud that my party has already committed to establishing at the heart of the next Labour Government a mission delivery board that will ensure that all Departments with an influence over the social determinants of health work in tandem to reduce inequalities and to ensure that health is part of all Government policies. The work will not stop there, though. Under the next Labour Government, every child will benefit from fully funded breakfast clubs and a broad and balanced national curriculum containing a wide range of physical activities. We will end the promotion of junk food targeted at children by implementing the ad ban which the current Government should have introduced—the watershed about which the hon. Member for Stourbridge spoke so passionately. We know that poverty is a key driver of obesity, so we will work tirelessly to tackle child poverty and to ensure that families can afford to feed their children and keep them well.

This is Labour’s vision—positive, ambitious and led by what works—but we cannot afford to wait until the next general election for action on obesity, so I hope that the Minister accepts that more needs to be done and that he will set out how the Government will develop their strategy to tackle obesity, reduce health inequalities and improve access to good, affordable food now. The Labour party stands ready to support him in this action, but it must come sooner rather than later.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:41, 21 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb for securing this debate, which is timely and deals with an incredibly important issue, which I am very interested in. I recently met Dr Van Tulleken and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, and we are working on this at pace, so I welcome the debate.

One of the great challenges with ultra-processed food is defining what it is. The most commonly used definition, as we have heard, is the NOVA definition, which includes foods that are clearly less healthy, such as sugary drinks, confectionery, salty snacks, cakes and other products that are high in calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar. A diet high in those things increases the risk of excess weight gain and obesity. We are committed to tackling obesity, and have a programme of measures to do that. We have introduced calorie labelling in cafés and restaurants, and since last October we have introduced location restrictions on less healthy foods to reduce pester power. An advertising watershed will be introduced in 2025. That requires numerous steps, and we are taking them.

For children and young people, we are spending £150 million a year on healthy food schemes, such as school fruit and veg and nursery milk, through our Healthy Start scheme. We are also putting in £330 million a year for school sport and the PE premium. In addition, there is a £300-million youth investment fund in facilities to encourage an active lifestyle, and we are spending about £20 million a year on the national child measurement programme, which aims to nip problems in the bud. Only a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister made an announcement on funding a £40-million start in the use of new weight loss drugs for those living with obesity.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash

Are the Government still committed to halving child obesity by 2030?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Yes. We are working with food businesses and we have set out direct measures to further progress reformulation, which is crucial to helping people to make healthy choices. The soft drinks industry levy decreased the amount of sugar in soft drinks by 46% between 2015 and 2020, and the voluntary sugar reduction programme has delivered a nearly 15% reduction in average sugar levels in breakfast cereals and a 13.5% reduction in yoghurts and fromage frais. Together, these policies are expected to accrue health benefits of about £60 billion, producing savings for the NHS.

Although a significant amount of work has been published, there is no universally agreed definition of ultra-processed food; nor is there an evidenced position. We do have definitions of products that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and that is the basis on which we regulate and control those foods. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition provides the Government with robust, independent advice on the science and the underpinning evidence base. SACN is clear that there is evidence that a diet high in calories, fat, salt and sugar is bad for people’s health. The question then is what ultra-processing adds to that impact. Is it something about the ease of eating these foods, or what it does to someone’s physiology? Are the products in some way addictive, or is it something else entirely?

Some people say, “Why don’t you just adopt the NOVA definition?” but the breadth of the NOVA definition is such that it includes foods that our current dietary guidelines encourage as part of a healthier diet. Shop-bought wholemeal bread, baked beans, or wholegrain breakfast cereals such as bran flakes and Weetabix would be captured by it, so clearly there is work to do to reach the right definition. Some of the foods that I have mentioned can make a positive contribution to nutrient intakes: for example, fortified breakfast cereals or bread and pasta made from fortified wheat flours are the largest source of dietary iron in all age and sex groups and provide, on average, between a third to a half of our calcium intake.

Defining the problem is not completely straightforward. To make progress so that we can start to regulate or do anything else, we need to have a clear definition. However, even though how to define these things is not totally obvious, that does not mean that there is not a problem, that we will not take action, or that we cannot find a solution. We all know it when we see it—I particularly admired the definition of my hon. Friend Maggie Throup that having an unpronounce-able ingredient is a pretty good sign—but we need to be precise and follow the scientific evidence.

That is why SACN is carrying out the scoping review of the evidence on processed foods and health, which includes reviewing existing processed food classifications and the ability to apply NOVA to UK diets and our national diet and nutrition survey. SACN aims to publish its initial assessment this summer, so we are moving quickly. We are also in touch with other countries in the same position, and I know that France and Canada are doing similar work. As part of the review, SACN will consider whether there is sufficient evidence to undertake a full risk assessment. Only after an in-depth risk assessment and the identification of robust supporting evidence would we consider updates to Government dietary advice.

The Eatwell Guide, which most Members present will know about, summarises dietary recommendations and shows how much of what we eat overall should come from different food groups to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. It recommends that we consume less often, and in smaller amounts, food and drinks that are high in saturated fat, salt or free sugars. Foods such as crisps, biscuits, cakes, ice cream and sugary drinks are all shown outside the main Eatwell Guide image to highlight that they are not necessary. Those foods also meet the NOVA definition of ultra-processed foods.

The Eatwell Guide and associated messaging is promoted through a range of channels, including the NHS and gov.uk websites, and the Government’s national social marketing campaigns, such as Better Health. We know from our national diet and nutrition survey that most people in the UK are not meeting the dietary recommendations depicted in the Eatwell Guide. Aligning diets more closely with existing dietary recommendations will deliver considerable population health benefits and healthcare savings.

Obviously, one of the things that we are doing to achieve those benefits is supporting people with the cost of living so that they can afford to do it. Support for the cost of living, which we have provided through both energy price support and direct measures for poorer households, has been worth £3,300 for the average household over last year and this year—one of the most generous support packages anywhere in Europe. We are absolutely conscious of the challenges around the cost of food at the moment, caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Even as we focus on the cost of living, we are still very much focused on obesity, because it accounts for a significant cost to the NHS and the economy. That is what we are doing with our existing programme on obesity and healthy eating. We know that there is more to do, and we will do more. Our major conditions strategy has a call for evidence that runs until 27 June, seeking people’s views on how the healthcare system can support people to lead healthier lives, including supporting them to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. We know that diet has an important impact on health. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has raised important concerns about ultra-processed foods, which we are looking at.

Our existing policies support less consumption of many of the foods that would be classified as ultra-processed because they are high in fat, salt and sugar. We know that they are a problem, and that is why we regulate in the way we do. It is vital that we take a considered and robust approach to the emerging evidence on what ultra-processing is doing. That is what we are doing, and we will not hesitate to take action if the evidence suggests that it is needed.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge 5:49, 21 June 2023

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful contributions. We are all aligned on this issue. I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that there has to be a considered response. It was touched on that we face a looming crisis. I believe that it is already a crisis; the bomb has ticked and now has actually gone off. We need to address the obesity crisis not just for our people and our children, but because of the impact that it is having on our NHS. The cost to our NHS is significant.

There is also significant cost to our own life outcomes. I thank Jim Shannon for sharing his story. I have my own story, but do not have not the time today to share it. My cholesterol was way off the Richter scale at about nine—whatever that means. I have halved it by changing my diet and cutting out any food high in fat, sugar or salt. I have a way to go, but, my goodness, it has worked very well.

I believe that regulators need to step up and make manufacturers take responsibility for the health outcomes of their foods. It is their food after all. They need to step up, act and take responsibility now, even before the Government consider when and if they need to intervene. I hope the manufacturers listen to what is being said in this place and in the public domain and take action.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the health impacts of ultra-processed food.

Sitting adjourned.