Should bread be tarnished with the derogatory UPF brush?

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags American bakers association Advocacy ultra processed food PFAS

Ultra processed foods (UPFs) are a hot topic, especially on Capitol Hill, which is following the popular stance that they are typically low in nutritional quality, more prevalent in low income societies and associated with a slightly higher mortality risk. How is this impacting the bakery industry?

UPFs currently carry a message of doom, marketed to consumers as ‘ready-to-eat products that show strong associations with mortality’.

A 30-year study published in BMJ journal – which examined the eating habits of 115,000 people – found a higher intake of UPFs was associated with a ‘slightly’ higher mortality, sparking huge debate and unsurprisingly impacting numerous categories of the food sector.

While the results accentuated the ‘possibility’ of ‘slightly’ higher mortality rates, the message has grabbed the attention of health watchdogs and social media influencers, which these days, ultimately impacts the machinations of the food industry.

No less so the bakery sector, which typically uses extensive processing and a high proportion of refined ingredients, added sugars, fats and additives to create its bottom line, a portfolio of commercial breads, pastries, desserts, cookies, biscuits, cakes, cupcakes, snack bars, granola bars and frozen baked goods like pizza and pies.

“We’re just one in many of manufacturing that is being negatively impacted by many of these regulations with respect to sodium and sugar,” Rasma Zvaners, the American Bakers Association’s VP of Government Affairs told Bakery&Snacks during a catchup at the association’s 2024 Convention in Arizona.

Our daily bread

But what are UPFs and should a staple like bread be tarnished with the same brush?

“There’s not a lot of definition around that, just a lot of conversation,” Zvaners told this site.

“I think that’s an area where there needs to be more research and understanding.

“We continue to educate the FDA [US Food and Drink Administration] on the functional role [a staple like bread] plays in the baking sector [and within society on the whole]. That doesn't mean that changes can’t be made along the way, but it’s certainly been an ongoing issue.”

She added, “In my personal opinion, bread should not really be considered a processed food. But again, we don't know exactly what those definitions are. [In fact,] FDA deputy commissioner has specifically said that more research needs to be done.”

A similar message surrounds PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, man-made chemicals that have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products since the 1940s. Essentially, PFAS are valued for their ability to repel water and oil, resist heat and provide durability, which has led to their use in various applications such as non-stick cookware (used extensively in the bakery industry) and food packaging.

The PFAS debate

Packaged bread Getty deepblue4you
Pic: GettyImages/deepblu4you

Like UPF studies, those done on PFAS have been linked with adverse health effects, including an increased risk of certain cancers, thyroid disorders, reproductive issues, immune system dysfunction and developmental delays in children. Nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’, they’ve also been found to accumulate in soil, water and wildlife, posing long-term risks to ecosystems.

“That’s one concern that has so many different layers and so many different ways that's impacting everyone,” admitted Zvaners.

However, she noted that “every year, the FDA sample foods for PFAS levels. There was a unique case of a product that was imported from elsewhere that had high levels of PFAS that was recalled last year, but overall, they’re saying the levels they’re finding are trace and from a food safety perspective, they’re not concerned about it.”

She did note that a recent Environmental Protection Agency study on drinking water regulations would require municipalities to make significant changes to not only test for PFAS, but also put filtration systems in.

“There was much debate when this rule was proposed about the potential cost implications. When a regulation has significant cost impacts: at some point those costs need to be absorbed somewhere. So, from a baking perspective, we’ll be monitoring to see what potential impact that may have for our facilities and the municipalities they work within.”

Taking it to the next level, “we also have states that have been looking at PFAS more closely, such as Nevada, which last year, announced a rule that not only would require package labeling regarding PFAS, but also, criminal penalties if a food producer inappropriately labeled their package. That rule was vetoed by the governor, but we’ll have to see if that comes to fruition.”

Advocacy is our bread and butter

US map
Pic: GettyImages

It's the volatility and unpredictability like this that is making it a hostile environment for the baker. A situation the American Bakers Association is working to remove from the shoulders of their members.

“Advocacy is a huge priority for the American Bakers Association,” said Zvaners.

“The baking sector, like any other manufacturing sector, always is going to have regulatory obligations, be it at the federal level, at the state level, at local level. The role that we serve is to try to prepare our members either for what may be to come or to help them if they're having specific challenges. Our role is also serve as a conduit if they perhaps feel uncomfortable approaching a regulatory body.”

Listen to the whole conversation to find out more about ABA’s take on UPFs, PFAS and advocacy.

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