Expert Q&A : Talking with Mr. Vlad Gheorghe , President of OIPA , about the Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Health

Ultra-processed foods have become a significant part of the modern diet. These foods , characterized by long shelf life, attractive packaging, and low cost, are produced through various industrial processes. Although they are accessible and extremely tasty, specialists warn that their consumption is often linked to numerous health problems.

Designed for quick preparation or consumption , ultra-processed foods are often marketed as time-saving, including ready-to-eat meals, snacks, and beverages that require minimal cooking or are already cooked.

What are ultra-processed foods ?

Ultra-processed foods are a category of food products created through industrial processes that transform raw ingredients into ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products . Unlike minimally processed foods (e.g., washed and packaged vegetables ) or even processed culinary ingredients (e.g., flour, sugar), ultra-processed foods contain ingredients and additives not commonly used or at least not in such large quantities. These foods often use ingredients synthesized in laboratories, such as artificial sweeteners, colorants, and flavors.

These foods contain numerous additives to improve flavor, texture, color, and shelf life. Common additives include emulsifiers, preservatives, stabilizers, and anti-caking agents.

Read also : Pay attention to Alerts for food products with the European InfoCons App !

Examples of ultra-processed foods :

  • Sugary drinks : soft drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened fruit juices;
  • Snacks : chips, cookies, and candies;
  • Instant foods : instant noodles, instant soups;
  • Processed meats : hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats;
  • Breakfast cereals : sweetened and flavored cereals;
  • Pastry products : cakes, pastries, and long-shelf-life bread;
  • Frozen productsvegetable , fish, meat-based meals, or frozen desserts.

OIPA (The Interprofessional Organization of Vegetable and Fruit Producers) is an interprofessional organization in Romania , established with the primary objective of representing and promoting the interests of producers in the fruit and vegetable sector. Through its tireless commitment to the sustainable development of the fruit and vegetable sector, OIPA Vegetables and Fruits stands as an essential pillar in supporting producers in Romania , while also promoting the immense potential of Romanian agriculture on the national and international stage.

We have invited Mr. Vlad Gheorghe , President of OIPA Vegetables and Fruits , to discuss the topic of ultra-processed foods , a subject that raises many questions for us and for which we want to gather answers for consumers , from accredited individuals in various branches of the food industry .

Photo source – agrointel.ro

 

1. “Ultra-processed” can mean many different things , including canned vegetables or various frozen products . Does “ultra-processed” automatically mean “bad for my health” ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “Yes, there should be very strict monitoring for ultra-processed foods . For example, vegetable preserves should be withdrawn 3-4 days before the expiration date. If permitted in the food  industry’s cycle, I can still use that non-expired preserve or integrate it into new production, allowing processing to do so. Otherwise, I can send it for composting or destruction. In the case of processed meats, it is noticeable that those withdrawn from consumption, where there are no destruction ovens, end up somewhere unknown. But it is certain that processed meats are ground up, and we no longer have a fiber of meat that can be easily distinguished in any processed meat. I believe fresh meat is added to those withdrawn from stores, maybe 150%, not 10%. My experience tells me that because, from 1985 until 1990, I worked in a State Agricultural Enterprise (IAS) and added a 10% proportion of fresh meat to those we withdrew. But today, I haven’t seen any landfill to destroy these meat products . Ultra-processing leads to doubling the doses of additives , nitrates, which are added to product components, which is not beneficial at all. Clearly, those that have an expiration date, sent to composting, produce energy, produce compost, just not to return to human food  .”

2. What are the health risks faced by people who consume ultra-processed foods ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “Imagine that the human body can tolerate chemical products within normal limits. Whether they are pesticides or pesticide residues, whether they are nitrates, sodium, what is added to sausages, processed meats. That dose, if we keep topping it up, at the second or third addition, becomes an overdose. Categorically, they are not beneficial, and this should not be up for debate. Maybe for animal feed, but not even there, because they, the poor animals, are forced to consume what we offer them. We have composting, and the production and processing plans should be synchronized between production and processing.”

Do you know what Food Additives are ? You can read more HERE 

 

3. What do you consider to be the biggest traps on the label of an ultra-processed product ? We can think of “clean label” or “no added sugar” .

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “Firstly, the wordplay added to the label . Labels should be branded. In Romania,  country brands have disappeared. We had DERO, Sibiu Salami, Victoria Salami, all with strictly authentic recipes. A classic brand is needed, without multicolored labels , which can hide something. It’s simple, a white label , with simple writing, country of origin, bottled or packaged, company, expiration date. The multicolored label , diverse, catches your attention, and the writing remains the smallest part that you sometimes can’t decipher, even with glasses.”

4. Should legislation be improved to better inform consumers about ultra-processed foods ? If so , how could we improve the legislation ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “Legislation should take precedence, but firstly it should be applied by the authorities. A way should be found, a private partnership, public-private, no matter how, just not to belong entirely to the state, because we have seen and know very well what happens with state authorities when they need to intervene in inspections. We, as private individuals, find goods from another country, with a better label and more valuable nutrients, without anyone analyzing the consistency or concentration of the ingredients. It is inexplicable to me when you sell pork or chicken sausages, and it says there 2-3% pork or chicken and the rest is, what? Isn’t it better to take a pork leg somewhere at 28-35 lei per kilogram, but it’s massive meat? Why is a kilogram of sausages so expensive when a kilogram of meat is 28-35 lei? Am I paying for processing? And I don’t even know what’s in those sausages.”

5. Are ultra-processed foods high in salt and sugar pleasing to the brain ? Can we talk about addiction ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “It’s possible that the combination used in the recipes in the lab is specifically to attract the consumer to consume larger quantities of those foods . Before, on my grandmother’s advice, I used to go to the store and only buy sugar and oil. Everything else was managed at home. I take this opportunity to tell consumers to return to the pantry our grandparents had. There you should find a jar of zacusca, jam, sugar, and preserves. Sixty percent of the sweet products we consume should be homemade. In our home jars, we know that fruits and vegetables end up there. Be very careful with cakes and confectionery products . Sausage factories do not work with garlic; they use garlic powder from China. Confectionery factories do not work with milk or eggs; they use powdered milk, and powdered eggs. They resorted to these powders for shelf life; it’s possible they don’t bring fermentation. We should want food to reach the plate as naturally as possible. When the tomato is harvested, it should reach the shelf, when the watermelon is harvested, it should reach the shelf.”

6. Given that they are always available , tasty , and cheap , is it easier to consume them excessively without realizing it ? What does excess mean ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “Indeed, the price has given us a restart because the standard of living is low. We know very well the purchasing power. There are situations where we indeed resort to buying cheap. But we also buy what is more expensive, out of curiosity. Why does one product cost 5 lei, and another similar one cost 1 leu? There should be a separation of ultra-processed products on the shelf through re-labeling . A warning because it might need to be cooked better or a natural product added to it to create a balance. If that product was ultra-processed , I choose to cook the first course with such a product and the second course to bring a meat with fiber or a vegetable – based meal. To have a balance.”

Read also : Expert Q&A : The Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Health

 

7. What is the impact on children’s health if these ultra-processed foods are found in their diet from an early age ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “I don’t want to scare the consumer, but a few years ago, I encountered cases where children had certain pesticides in their blood tests. From 6 months old, the child starts consuming mashed fruits and vegetables . This leaves us with a big question mark and could be due to soil residue or the supply of vegetables out of season, when Romania does not produce, from countries where the soil does not allow plant growth and development and requires fertilizers for the plant to develop normally. Stricter laboratories are needed at border entries to analyze products introduced containing certain percentages above the allowed limit.”

8. What is the impact of consuming ultra-processed foods on the health and quality of life of the elderly ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “For the elderly, the impact is disastrous. They consume something that has no nutrients, practically malnutrition. It brings no benefit to the elderly’s body. It does more harm, instead of assimilating vitamins at this age.”

9. How does the consumption of ultra-processed foods that contain large amounts of salt , added sugars , and saturated fats impact health in the long term ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “I have never heard during my grandparents’ time of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. I don’t want to know what leads to this disease ; it’s a sad thing to even pronounce the name of this disease , but certainly, diet plays its role. Over-saturation of additives , sugar, salt in our diet leads to a negative impact on health .”

10. Which categories of ultra-processed foods have the greatest impact on health ?

 Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “The greatest impact is from common foods . I’ll give you an example, the tomato paste we use often. I don’t think we cook anything without tomato paste. Cheeses, processed meats, which contain additives . We should return to foods with a clean label , with a short shelf life, but produced in smaller quantities. And to the consumer, try to limit themselves, always get fresh food .”

11. How can we change bad eating habits to incorporate more foods that are beneficial for health and improve the quality of life ?

Mr. Vlad Gheorghe: “I notice that young people are very receptive and want to eat healthily , read a lot, open the internet, read on their phones, and are unpleasantly surprised by what foods contain. Let’s do the following exercise. If a family living in the countryside would support at least 10 families (each with 2 people) with products from their household , it would mean a total of 20 people. Romania has over 4 million households . If these 4 million households would support, not 20 people per household ,  but 3-4 people, let’s say, it would mean 12-16 million inhabitants. This means that small households could sustain the country’s population without having an intensive or industrial culture of producing milk, meat, eggs, or fruits and vegetables . To form the social relationship that existed in the past, a movement of people from cities to suburbs or markets, to stock up from small producers, from trusted people. This will form a relationship; maybe they will buy a garden over time because our country is an agrarian country by definition. 87% of Romania is rural territory.”

 

Read also : What Do Food Labels Reveal? Why Is It Important to Read Them Carefully?

 

Read the label carefully: this helps you identify and avoid foods with excessive additives , salt, sugar, or saturated fats. Choose products with minimal ingredients.

The European InfoCons App provides you with the number of additives , ingredients, and quantities of salt and sugar , directly on your mobile phone . This information is essential for consumers , helping them make informed choices regarding products  .

 

Article written by Cosmina Nițu

Master’s degree in nutrition and diversification consultant

 

Translated from Romanian by Andra Nițu

Master’s degree in communication sciences

 

InfoCons – European Organization for Consumer Protection and Promotion of Programs and Strategies , a full member of the World Organization Consumers International , founding member of the Federation of Consumer Associations , and member of ANEC .

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