UPF study triggers national identity crisis

A study identifying Swedes as Europe’s leading consumers of ultra-processed foods & drinks (UPFDs) has triggered an identity crisis in a nation that prides itself on its healthy image.

The ranking, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, shocked Sweden and provoked a strong reaction. “This is not the image that I have of Sweden and Swedes,” said Jessica Almenäs, co-host of the country’s biggest health and fitness podcast. “I was under the impression that we’re a healthy, wholesome people and that we are at the forefront when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle. This doesn’t look good…”

The study comes from the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, where researchers compared consumption of UPFDs in 22 European countries. It defined UPFDs according to the NOVA system, which classifies foods into four groups:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fruit, vegetables, grains, meat, unflavoured dairy)
  2. Processed culinary ingredients (oil, honey, sugar, butter)
  3. Processed foods (such as bacon, canned or pickled vegetables, freshly baked bread, fresh cheese)
  4. Ultra-processed foods and drinks (chips, soda, ready meals, flavoured dairy products, sausages, breakfast cereal, pastries, confectionery, biscuits)

Sweden topped the list with 42.2% of total daily energy intake from UPFDs, significantly higher than the European average of 27.2%. At the bottom of the list were Italy with 13.4% and Romania with 15.3%.

The most common UPFD offenders were:

  • Bakery
  • Sausages
  • Sauces
  • Margarines
  • Composite dishes

This is not a list that any country wants to lead -– after all, links have been observed between UPFD intake and various lifestyle diseases, leading some scientists to call for warning messages and campaigns for UPFDs, similar to tobacco.

But Swedish health authorities say the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. “We’re slightly sceptical of the findings of the study,” Emma Patterson of The Swedish National Food Agency, told Sveriges Radio. “Making these kinds of international comparisons is always difficult, and in this case we do not agree with the way they have classified some foods.

“This is particularly true in the case of composite dishes, where entire meals have been classified as ultra-processed – regardless of how or where they have been made… the focus falls too much on this instead of other contributors which would be more useful to focus on, such as sweets, biscuits, cookies, soda, crisps and desserts,” said Patterson.

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