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    Confusion prevails over ultra-processed food labelling

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    Labelling foods as ultra-processed might not be so helpful for consumers who want to know how healthy a product is, UK experts say, claiming it is too simplistic to brand all ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as very bad.

    Currently, packs must show whether a food item is high in fat, salt and sugar but not how processed it is. Though many UPFs are clearly unhealthy, some could fall into the “healthy” green category of the “traffic-light” system.

    This was the case for meat-alternative products, the University College London team said, and some people may be unaware what they were buying was ultra-processed.

    Of nearly 3,000 food and drink items popular in the UK the researchers looked at, 55 per cent were ultra-processed and labelled red, containing significantly more fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt and energy per 100g than the minimally or unprocessed, which tended to be labelled green.

    But some UPFs were green and some minimally processed, such as nuts, seeds and whole milk.

    UCL senior research fellow and weight-management specialist Dr Adrian Brown told BBC News, “Generally, meat alternative can be considered highly processed – but if you look at front-of-package labelling for energy, fat, saturated fat and sugar, they’re all green, which would be considered healthy,” he said.

    “There’s a bit of a grey area [with UPFs] as, at this present time, we only have association data between ultra-processed food and health outcomes such as diabetes and heart disease,” Dr Brown said.

    The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) also described “uncertainties around the quality of evidence available”.

    Dr Brown’s team at UCL have now begun a trial to see how healthy a UFP-only diet can be, compared with a minimally processed one, and whether guidance should be given to consumers.

    “We’re putting people on an eight-week diet which meets the government’s recommendations for salt, fat, sugar and energy – what is considered healthy – and we’re comparing the outcomes of them, related to weight and other changes in terms of health as well,” he said.

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