A new report commissioned by the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada and conducted by the University of Montreal, has revealed that 48.3 per cent of Canadians’ daily caloric intake comes from ultra-processed foods. It also notes that children aged nine to 13 are the largest consumers of these nutritionally lacking products, which account for 57 per cent of their daily calories.
“Children in Canada consume as much ultra-processed food as Americans, and we already have an idea that Americans are eating very badly,” says Dr. Jean-Claude Moubarac, assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Montreal and author of the report.
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In fact, Canadians are the second largest buyers of ultra-processed foods and drinks in the world (second only to the U.S.), and for the first time, we have children who have spent their entire lives eating diets high in these foods.
Ultra-processed foods are defined as products comprised largely of substances like sugar, fat, salt and additives, with little to no intact food. They’re highly refined and have almost no nutritional benefit, and are marketed as a convenient choice.
For comparison, minimally processed foods comprise frozen fruits and vegetables, pasteurized milk and fermented plain yogurts, and clean, packaged meats; processed foods are whole foods with added salt, sugar or fat, like canned fruits and vegetables, cheeses and breads.
But ultra-processed foods are those that (for the most part) we know aren’t good, like sugary and drinks and fatty foods, including items like chocolate milk, salty snacks, cereal bars, sweetened cereals, deli meats, milk products, ready-made and frozen meals, and condiments and dressings also fall into this category.
Yet they continue to make their way into refrigerators and lunch boxes across Canada. Partly due to how they’re presented to the public.
“Marketing has a huge impact on how we perceive food and eating, and advertising will exploit the different ideas related to desire, social status and daily challenges. These products become a solution or alternative to the problems we experience,” Moubarac says.
For example, as time is largely considered a commodity in short supply, the advertising campaigns of these ultra-processed food brands and restaurant chains that specialize in ultra-processed foods will prey on a working parent’s struggle to find the time to both feed and spend quality time with their children.
In addition, Moubarac points to the physiological effects these foods can have on the brain. Salt, sugar and fat, he says, have a direct influence on the brain’s circuitry of pleasure and satisfaction. The creators of these products know that and cram as many instantly gratifying ingredients into them as they can. Couple that with an expansive ad campaign, and misleading claims on packaging like “high in antioxidants” or “vitamins,” and they virtually call out to kids from supermarket shelves.
However, these claims aren’t entirely based in duplicity. The health industry has, according to Moubarac, placed far too much importance on individual nutrients and not enough on the nutritional value of the whole picture.
“The problem is we focus on nutrient information, like fibre or protein. A lot of processed foods have added fibre and protein, and are marketed as healthy as a result. But when you look at the overall quality, it paints a different picture,” he says.
Part of the reason we’ve lost our way — and we’re struggling with nationwide health issues like obesity (12 per cent of kids and teens, and 26.7 per cent of adults are obese) and heart disease (25.1 per cent of adults are hypertensive and 8.5 per cent have ischemic heart disease) — is because of a failure in public policy.
As the report notes, while the Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide outlines groups of foods we should be consuming (fruit and vegetables, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives) it doesn’t distinguish between sugar-laden and processed products.
“One of the reasons for this report is to show with recent Canadian data what we propose to do to change the food system,” Moubarac says. “We need to make recommendations that people can use and understand easily, without overemphasizing nutrients or technical information. Cooking from scratch, choosing a restaurant that serves fresh meals versus fast food — these are simple recommendations. But we need other policies in place so this can happen. If the environment doesn’t change, people will have a hard time changing.”
He points to the Danish model, where local agricultural farmers have been linked up with public institutions like schools, hospitals and seniors centres, so that they can buy directly from the farmers and prepare their meals from scratch using wholesome ingredients.