By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
Ready meals, frozen pizzas, cookies and cakes should carry cigarette-style front of packet health warnings, according to new research.
Ultra-processed foods - which also include burgers, sausages, candy and ice creams - are the 'new tobacco,' say public health experts.
Most people are in the dark about the consequences of eating them - after being left bamboozled by clever marketing.
Stronger messages are needed to enable consumers to make more informed choices.
Lead author Trish Cotter, of New York-based Vital Strategies, said: "The industrial processing, as well as the cocktail of additives, flavours, emulsifiers and colours they contain to give flavour and texture, make the final product hyperpalatable or more appealing and potentially addictive, which in turn leads to poor dietary patterns."
More than half the calories the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods - increasing the risk of obesity.
They range from smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread and bacon to sweets, chocolates, biscuits and cakes.
Writing in BMJ Global Health, the US team say urgent action is needed to spell out the full extent of their harm.
The products have been chemically or physically transformed using industrial processes. They are high in salt, sugar and saturated fats.
They usually take the form of packaged foods that are ready-to-eat, contain more than five ingredients and have a long shelf life.
Ms Cotter and colleagues said processed foods are "among the most aggressively promoted and marketed products in the world."
Sales are growing rapidly in low- and middle-income countries. Billions of people are likely to be at heightened risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and death as a result.
The researchers said a study in Colombia and Brazil found people do not recognize the term 'ultra-processed products' - but know they are harmful.
But their own analysis showed they are also associated with positive emotions.
These include satisfying cravings, being tasty and bringing joy - all of which might be the result of "decades of persuasive marketing by the food industry."
Ms Cotter said: "Much as marketers build a brand, the public health community needs to build meaning around the term 'ultra-processed.'
"The public health community has been notoriously negligent of public health messaging and branding."
The researchers cited the term 'non-communicable disease' as an example.
This is "a clunky, technical term that defines an important category of diseases - cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more - by what they are not, and is little known outside public health circles," they said.
The success of tobacco control offers a useful lesson in how to tackle the major health threat.
Ms Cotter said it is a shining example of "huge policy wins and strong public understanding of the consequences of consuming a dangerous product.
"Much of this success is a result of using tried and tested marketing techniques, coupled with faithful adherence to the science of tobacco’s harms.
"It is time to invest in establishing the negative brand identity that ultra-processed foods and beverages deserve.
"We could start by taking lessons learnt from tobacco control to build public awareness and campaigns that reveal the true nature of these products and the looming threat to consumers’ health."
The researchers called for warning labels similar to those found on the front and back of packs of cigarettes.
These could be further strengthened by incorporating an ultra-processed warning label "to signal an independent, additional measure of unhealthiness."
They also want public education campaigns directly linking the products to serious ill-health.
Added Ms Cotter: "If we are to stave off the devastation to our food system and our health, governments, with the support of the global public health community, need to urgently implement effective strategies that lead to decreasing consumption of these unhealthy products and enable healthier choices."
It's estimated that a staggering one in three adults are obese.
Last year health experts in the UK said ministers should regulate processed food as heavily as tobacco to tackle the obesity crisis.
They recommended severe restrictions on supermarket promotions of processed foods.
They also advised bans on fast food outlets near schools, and TV adverts for pizzas, burgers and similar foods before 9 pm.
One campaign group even urged the government to consider plain packaging for processed food.
Boris Johnson declared a "war on obesity" after weight was identified as a major factor in deaths from Covid-19.
Britain has been dubbed the 'fat man' of Europe with two in three adults overweight.
Mr Johnson has said his time in intensive care after contracting the virus - when he weighed more than 17 stone – changed his "libertarian" views on food and obesity.
Richard Murray, chief executive of the King’s Fund, said: "Think what was done with tobacco.
"Don't let it brand, limit how much can be sold, tax it – use every possible route.
"You're not going to find the magic bullet right away, but there's got to be a genuine recognition that this is a massive national challenge."
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