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WHO reports ultra-processed foods and alcohol as responsible for millions of annual deaths
Phoebe Fraser

Phoebe Fraser

14 June 2024

WHO reports ultra-processed foods and alcohol as responsible for millions of annual deaths

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and alcohol as two of the four products responsible for 19 million deaths worldwide each year.


In the report, UPFs and alcohol stand alongside tobacco and fossil fuels, which the WHO claims cause 34% of global deaths per year. According to the report, these products contribute to 2.7 million deaths in the European region annually, almost 7,500 deaths per day.


The findings are part of a broader analysis that identifies the primary industries responsible for a significant portion of global deaths. The WHO said certain industries are “driving ill-health and premature mortality across Europe and central Asia, including through interfering in and influencing prevention and control efforts for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes, and their risk factors including tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets and obesity.”


WHO blames ultra-processed foods and alcohol for deathsWHO blames ultra-processed foods and alcohol for deaths

Ultra-processed foods: A growing concern

Ultra-processed foods, often characterised by high levels of sugar, fat and artificial additives, have been increasingly linked to chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The WHO report underscores the urgency for the F&B manufacturing sector to address the health implications of these products.


"Ultra-processed foods are not just a dietary concern; they represent a major public health issue," said Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe. "The industry needs to take proactive steps to reformulate products and reduce the burden of diet-related diseases."


The report states that 117,290 deaths per year in Europe are caused by diets high in processed meats and 252,187 by diets high in salt.


Alcohol: A persistent threat

Alcohol remains a leading cause of preventable deaths, associated with liver disease, cancer and accidents, with 426,857 deaths per year in Europe caused by alcohol. The WHO report emphasises that despite various public health campaigns, alcohol consumption continues to be a major contributor to mortality rates.


Kluge continued: "The alcohol industry has a critical role to play in mitigating these risks. Measures such as clear labelling, reduced marketing to vulnerable populations and support for addiction services are essential."


WHO blames ultra-processed foods and alcohol for deaths

For businesses within the F&B manufacturing sector, these findings highlight the urgent need for a strategic shift towards healthier product offerings. The WHO's report serves as a call to action for manufacturers to innovate and reformulate their products to meet higher health standards.


Key recommendations for the industry include:


  • Reformulating products to lower sugar, salt and unhealthy fats

  • Enhancing transparency through clearer labelling of nutritional information

  • Investing in research to develop healthier alternatives

  • Collaborating with public health bodies to promote balanced diets and responsible consumption


Kluge stated: “Four industries kill at least 7000 people in our region every day. The same large commercial entities block regulation that would protect the public from harmful products and marketing and protect health policy from industry interference.”


“WHO/Europe will work with policy-makers to strengthen tactics to protect against and reduce harmful industry influence. Today, we provide indisputable evidence of harmful commercial practices and products, and we say: people must take precedence before profit, always.”


However, Rebeca Fernández, science director at food industry organisation FoodDrinkEurope, said: “To connect the consumption of processed foods with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries is irresponsible and outrageously misleading. We all need food – and we all need processed food.”


She continued: “Unfortunately the WHO report does not acknowledge that there is no agreed definition of what ultra-processed foods are, let alone their impact on health, which is why last year the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Nordic Nutrition Guidelines concluded, respectively, that the evidence was insufficient to use UPF terminology to define public health guidelines and that it detracts from well-established food classifications and dietary recommendations.”

Fernández explained that well-established food nutrition science across the world tells consumers that the best way to tackle obesity and non-communicable diseases is to focus on the nutrition content of a food and how often you consume it, in conjunction with what type of lifestyle they lead.


“That’s why food and drink makers here in Europe are playing their part by reformulating products to cut salt, fat, and sugars whilst boosting fibre and micronutrients, all the while providing more nutritious offerings that deliver health benefits,” she concluded.


#WHO #WorldHealthOrganization #ultraprocessedfoods #alcohol

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