Why Some Argentine Nutritionists Don’t Think Ultra Processed Foods Are That Bad

The World Health Organization recommended South American countries reduce their ultra-processed food consumption. Some Argentine nutritionists disagree.

by Meaghan Beatley
Jan 16 2017, 12:00pm

Image: Dmitry Chumichev/Shutterstock

Your average Argentine diet is what Augustus Gloop's dreams are made of: cookies for breakfast, Coca Cola by the barrel, and a steady injection of carbs. After all, 2015 study by research group TrialPanel showed that pizza, milanesa (breaded meat), empanadas, and pasta were Argentines' most frequently home-cooked meals.

A more recent concern identified by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is an alarming increase in the sale and consumption of ultra-processed products. A 2015 report titled "Ultra-Processed Food and Drink Products in Latin America: Trends, Impact on Obesity, Policy Implications" pointed out that the per capita sale of ultra-processed foods and drinks increased by 27 percent in Latin America between 2000 to 2013, directly contributing to a major upswing in obesity rates.

The report classified food products according to the extent of their processing (from "minimally processed" to "ultra processed") and recommended countries take action to limit the availability of the latter categories via public regulations and market interventions.

But as a recent health forum held in Buenos Aires revealed, leading Argentine nutritionists are skeptical of the report and don't seem to think that the processes behind ultra-processed products are actually all that bad. One such skeptic, Argentine Nutrition Society (Sociedad Argentina de Nutrición) member Mónica Katz, told Motherboard she believes PAHO's classification system will only "confuse people."

"Using the term 'ultra processed' is a neologism that confuses people or leads them to think that salt, sugar and fat aren't important but that the technological processes involved are," Katz said.

She's concerned PAHO's classification system doesn't account for "housewives, restaurants, catering businesses, or food carts using salt, sugar, or fat in excess."

"What's been proven to have negative effects on health is the 'formula' or 'recipe' behind a product or meal, not the technological processes involved," she added.

But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), those processes do count. A lot.

Ultra-processed foods are poor in terms of nutrition value, addictive, and objectively worse for you than an extra spoonful of sugar. While their sales have declined in the US (by nearly 10 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the PAHO report), they're on the rise in Latin America, where transnational corporations have found fertile ground for their products, largely thanks to households' lower purchasing power. Step into any chino (colloquial term for local grocery stores in Buenos Aires. They're typically owned by members of the Asian community—Koreans, generally—but "chino," Spanish for "Chinese" is the blanket term. Just, yeah.) and you'll find your options largely limited to the colorful packaging of processed goods. And while you'll almost always find a vegetable stand at your chino's entrance, it's often difficult to opt for fresh fruits and vegetables when dry pasta costs three times less.

Katz isn't the only one knocking the report: Dr. Alberto Cormillot, a key member of Argentina's Health Ministry, told local newspaper Clarín that, "it would be good to reduce fat, sugar, and salt in food products, but the concept of 'ultra-processed' food is not bad."

The fact that he's made a small fortune selling processed "diet" food may have something to do with his answer.

Beyond homegrown food empires, multinational corporations' stranglehold on Argentina and the rest of South America is also leading the obesity epidemic. With a 26.5 percent adult obesity rate, obesity is the second cause of death in Argentina today, right after cigarettes, according to the World Health Organization.