Only a small number of US government policies worry about ultra-processed foods, and they lag behind those of other countries, such as Israel, Belgium, and Brazil, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. These foods include industrially produced packaged snacks, fruit-flavored drinks, and hot dogs, which have been linked to obesity and certain cancers.
“In some countries, UPFs have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but in the US, few policies directly target UPFs,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, a professor of public health policy and management at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study.
Trans fats in Israel
At least Israel has discouraged the use of trans fats, which are made when liquid oils are turned into solid fats like shortening or margarine and are the worst for health. Too much trans fats in your diet increases your risk for heart disease and other health problems.
The government has also marked food products with red circles to indicate too much salt, sugar, or fat and green circles for those that are healthful. Food served to soldiers and in many kindergartens has improved in recent years.
After decades of focusing on single nutrients such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in nutrition science and food policy, a growing body of evidence shows that there is more to dietary quality than nutrients.
“It’s clear that the extent of processing of a food can influence its health effects, independent of its food ingredients or nutrient contents,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s co-author and a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “UPFs generally contain ‘acellular nutrients’ – nutrients lacking any of the natural intact food structure of the source ingredient –and other industrial ingredients and additives that together can increase risk of weight gain, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.”
Few countries regulate UPFs
Only a few countries directly regulate UPFs, but those that do have limited its consumption in schools and recommend eating fewer of them in dietary guidelines.
The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which inform the country’s food and nutrition policies, do not currently mention ultra-processed food. However, the scientific advisory committee for the 2025-2030 US Dietary Guidelines has been tasked with evaluating research related to UPF consumption as it relates to weight gain.
To understand how American policy-makers have already addressed UPFs in policies, the researchers gathered all federal and state statutes, bills, resolutions, regulations, proposed rules, and Congressional Research Services reports related to “highly processed” and ultra-processed foods.
They identified 25 policies – eight at the federal level and 17 at the state level – that were proposed or passed from 1983 to 2022. Twenty-two of them were proposed or passed since 2011, showing that US policy-making on UPF is quite recent.
The US policies on such food tend to mention them as contrary to healthy diets. Most policies had to do with healthy eating for children, including limiting UPFs in schools and teaching them about nutrition. Another common theme was the relatively higher price of healthy food versus ultra-processed foods.
Only one policy – a Massachusetts school food bill – actually defined ultra-processed foods, and three policies sought to address the broader food environment by providing incentives to small retailers to stock healthy foods.
“The emerging policy language in the US on ultra-processed foods is consistent with international policies on the topic,” Pomeranz said. “We would urge a more robust discussion and consideration of ultra-processed foods for future policy-making. The US should consider processing levels in school food policies, especially to update the ‘Smart Snack’ rules, and to ensure the US Dietary Guidelines reflect the evidence on ultra-processed foods and health.”
Internationally, UPFs have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs. These policies are consistent with emerging US policy activity and may provide information for future policy-making in the US, the researchers concluded.