Treat all processed foods like cigarettes

Junk food is making us ill – it’s time for governments to take decisive action to protect public health, says Good Food contributing editor Joanna Blythman.

Cartoon of fast food packaging

It’s been obvious for ages that Britain has terrible eating habits, but even so, the recent report by a team of scientists into European diets makes alarming reading. Over half the food on the UK’s food shopping list is ‘ultra-processed’ [see the definition below], the highest of the 19 countries studied. A growing body of research suggests that heavy consumption of highly processed food is driving the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes and the evidence is all around us. We are the fattest country in Western Europe: 26.9% of us are obese and four out of every five children are on course to become obese adults.

So are we planning to carry on regardless, or are we ever going to take preventative action? The very architecture of food shopping choices pushes us into making bad choices. Supermarkets have aisles and aisles of sickly-sweet drinks, crisps and biscuits. Leisure centres and hospitals have vending machines loaded with junk. Is there any other country in the world where you’re offered half-price sweets when you buy a paper, or where you must walk past piles of confectionery when you just want to fill up on petrol?

In an ideal world, health watchdogs would never have allowed us to get into this mess. Look what happened with smoking. When the balance of evidence showed up its devastating health effects, government kicked into action, imposing punitive taxes on cigarettes and eventually labelling them with explicit health warnings that only those with an addiction could ignore. But in the UK, we have let the corporations – who make huge profits from junk food – sponsor top sporting events, even the Olympics.

Four rows of ring doughnuts

Governments of all persuasions, scared of being branded ‘Nanny State’, have lacked the nerve to take on the undeniable might of the junk food companies. They have cooked up wishy-washy voluntary agreements to slightly reduce sugar, salt and fat, and told us to ‘move more and eat less’. They’ve served up a monotonous ‘education, education, education’ message based on patently ineffective nutritional guidelines.

The most recent government Change4Life children’s snacks campaign says that it’s fine to feed your offspring ultra-processed snacks twice a day, providing they don’t exceed 200 calories. It recommends shop-bought jelly made from artificial sweeteners, gums, synthetic flavouring and colouring as snacks. Far from bringing purveyors of cleverly marketed junk to heel, ministers apparently want to appease them. Our elected representatives are abdicating responsibility.

I do however see one grain of truth in the official advice. We’re told that it’s up to us as individuals to ‘balance’ our diets for ourselves. I now think that concerned people need to step out of our processed food culture because the government isn’t going to save us. The team behind the study called for ‘policies and actions to promote consumption of unprocessed foods and make ultra-processed foods less available and affordable’. It would be good to think that our public health officials would act, but I won’t hold my breath.

Pile of chips in paper bag


What is processed food?

The NOVA team devised these four categories with examples

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed: Fresh or frozen fruit, veg & meat, grains, flour, fish, pulses, eggs, milk.

2. Processed culinary ingredients: Vinegar, oils, butter and salts, extracted from nature, used to season or cook.

3. Processed foods: Cured meats, cheese, canned fruit and veg, salted or sugared nuts and seeds.

4. Ultra-processed: Fizzy drinks, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream, sweets, chicken nuggets, packet soups.

Find more healthy eating advice on Good Food's health hub page

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman...

Bring an end to chain gang clones
Why food scandals are a good thing
Cheap processed food comes at a high price
A sandwich is not a proper meal
Can no-death meat replace the real thing?
Enough with the supersized sweets


Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.

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