July 11, 2022
July 11, 2022

Processed food is bad for you, right? Well, there’s more to this story. As new technologies create foods that can’t be made in home kitchens, such as plant-based meats and dairy products made with plant proteins, the question of whether we should all be consuming more highly processed foods is up for debate. Advocates say a substantial increase in food processing is the best way to feed growing human populations while also reducing food waste. We should trust – and invest – in food technology that can make our global food supply healthier and more sustainable, including highly or ultra-processed foods. Opponents argue that these kinds of foods are often less nutritious, and are commonly linked to adverse health indices, particularly when it comes to ultra-processing. As this debate blooms, Open to Debate partners with the Institute of Food Technologists to debate this question: Should We Eat More Processed Foods?




09:15 AM Monday, July 11, 2022
  • 00:00:00

    [music playing]

    John Donvan:

    Good morning, everybody. Well, what better way to start today than waking up to a nice
    breakfast and then having a lovely debate right afterwards? And I just have to say, wow, a
    roomful of food scientists. And with all of you here, I’m tempted to start out with a quick poll by
    applause to get you to clap and answer this question. How many of you here actually had
    breakfast this morning?


    All right, a sizable number of you. If we had time for it, I would really like to keep going with
    that question and asking who had what and who consumed anything that we might call Ultraprocessed.

  • 00:01:00

    Because that’s what this debate is going to be about. It’s yes or no to this question, should we eat
    more processed food? And it is a pleasure for us at Intelligence Squared to be here before this
    group, the annual gathering of the Institute of Food Technologists. You are people who know
    food, you know, the tech behind food processing. And, of course, that is a broad term. So, let’s
    define a little bit what we’re talking about. In this debate, we are not talking about food that gets
    minimal processing. We’re not talking about pasteurization or freezing or chopping or chilling.
    Orange juice is not going to be considered a process because it has to get squeezed even though
    that is a process. But we’re also not going to be hearing anybody making a case for so-called
    junk food. Nobody is here to defend chips and lollipops because that is really an easy one.
    Instead, the ultra-processed food that we’re going to be talking about is food made up of
    numerous ingredients combined by ever-advancing technology so that it will taste good and look
    good and deliver nutrition and fit in a package and be convenient and lasts a long time.

  • 00:02:00

    And most importantly, it is intended to play a solid role in our overall diets. The debaters are
    here to make the case for and against having those foods in our diets and say a net social good or
    not. And importantly, they are here to persuade you that they are making a strong case. And that
    means we want to know where you will stand on this question before the debate even begins.
    And so, for that reason, we’re going to ask you to vote to tell us how you would answer the
    question. Before you actually hear the arguments being made. We’re going to ask you to do that
    by using your phone and going to IQ — I’m sorry, ift.org/debate. That’s ift.org/debate. And
    there, you will be prompted to answer yes to the question or no to the question or to tell us that at
    this point, you are undecided. We’re going to keep that vote open for a few more minutes.

  • 00:03:00

    And what we’re looking for is to find out which side changes the most minds, and one other thing
    I want to say about the culture of Intelligence Squared. And we attempt to do we really tried to
    make the case that there’s such a thing as a good argument that people can disagree civilly and
    with respect for one another. And to that end, also, what I’d like to encourage you to feel free to
    do is to applaud points that you like, you know, that you hear made during the debate. This
    program is going to live on as a podcast. It’s going to be broadcast on Public Radio. It’s going to
    be on YouTube. And we want the audience that hears that to know that you were all here and
    that these debaters were trying to persuade you so please give voice to points that you like the
    opposite. Not so much. So, we’re not looking for booing and hissing at, so if here’s something
    you don’t like, you know, you might want to let out a sort of sorrowful groan or sardonic
    chuckle, something like that. But you really — we really want to keep it positive.

  • 00:04:00

    So, one more time, please go to vote. ift.org/debate, ift.org/debate. Vote yes, no, or undecided.
    And while you’re doing that, I would like to ask you to meet our debaters. First, arguing that we
    should eat more processed foods and joining us remotely, Amy Webb, futurist and author of
    “The Genesis Machine,” let’s please welcome her.


    Amy Webb:

    Hey, everyone.

    John Donvan:

    And Amy’s partner, let’s welcome to the stage Michael Gibney, a professor of food and nutrition
    and former president of Nutrition Society.


    And opposing them, arguing on the other side that we should not eat more processed foods, here
    is Marion Nestle, academic and author of “Food Politics.” Please welcome Marion to the stage.


    And her partner is Kevin Hall, Nutrition and Metabolism scientist for the National Institutes of
    Health. Kevin Hall, welcome to the stage.


  • 00:05:00

    So, our debate will go in three rounds. And the first round will be opening statements by each
    debater. In turn, they each get three minutes and up first to argue yes to the question. Should we
    eat more processed food? We’re going to go first to Amy Webb, again is joining us remotely.
    Amy, it’s your turn.

    Amy Webb:

    Thank you so much. Good morning, everyone. I’m so sorry. I can’t be there with you in person
    for this important debate. I’m on my last day of quarantine. I want to start by saying words
    matter. In the past few years, we’ve experienced mind-warping, soul-crushing amounts of
    change. You know, soul-crushing amount of change in inflation, political upheaval, new open
    discussions about gender and sexuality, and a global pandemic that just won’t seem to end. The
    amount of change, at this level, it results in a massive amount of new data. And as a result of
    that neurological overload.

  • 00:06:00

    Our brains don’t like all of this new data. Our brains crave structure. They crave order, so we
    default to labels. Labels are what help us create order out of chaos to resolve the messiness. But
    labels obscure nuance, and labels help to inflame cognitive biases if we’ve learned nothing over
    the past couple of years. We’ve seen this happen time and time again throughout all areas of our
    society. Labels validate our cherished beliefs, even if those beliefs are wrong. Labels help us
    find our tribes which then amplify those cherished beliefs and generate echo chambers from
    which it can be very challenging to escape. We forget that labels are constructs and that they
    leave little room for context and interpretation. Today, we’re going to be talking about Ultraprocessed or highly processed foods.

  • 00:07:00

    And we need to be really careful about those labels because words matter. There’s a labeling
    system in place called NOVA that was developed in Brazil. There are four categories group one
    refers to unprocessed natural foods. These are edible parts of plants and animals. The idea is
    we’re cooking these things at home. We’ve sourced them locally on their wholesome group for
    foods. That’s what we’re talking about today. These are ultra-processed. That sounds ominous,
    that label. These are packaged snacks. These are reconstituted meat products. These are frozen
    foods. These are with very much sounds like a demonic food group. When we talk about foods
    using these labels, our brains immediately make a value judgment, group four is irresponsible
    and unforgivable. But if we zoom out and challenge our cherished beliefs, that’s why we’re
    having this debate after all. There are three compelling reasons to say yes.

  • 00:08:00

    The first has to do with classification. I’ve got whole grain bread in my kitchen. It’s mostly
    seeds. I bought it in a store. Now technically, this is classified as Ultra-processed, but it is full
    of great nutrients. It’s low in fat. It’s high in complex carbohydrates. Athletes rely on this bread
    as a nutritious source of full. This bread is contraband, according to this label. At the same
    grocery store where I bought the bread, there’s a bakery, and at that bakery, they make delicious
    brioche that is from scratch that, is minimally processed, and it’s nutritionally void. It gives me a
    headache. It gives me stomach aches. There are other reasons to vote yes for this that have to do
    with interpretation and application, which we’ll get into during the discussion and during the
    closing remarks. But I just want you to keep in mind that labels matter. If we think about
    processed foods, and we can expand our definitions. Of course, we should vote yes for this

  • 00:09:00

    To vote no would be to deny us optionality.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Amy Webb.


    Our next debater is arguing no to the question, and that is Marion Nestle. Marion, the floor is

    Marion Nestle:

    Hello. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here. I think that ultra-processed foods are the most
    important nutrition concept to come along since vitamins. And I say this because I talk about
    this from a public health standpoint. I’m interested in public health. Obesity and overweight are
    the most important public health nutrition problem in America today. The CDC says that 74
    percent of American adults are overweight or obese, and 40 percent meeting the criteria for
    obesity. And we need to look at what that’s about, and one of the things it’s about is eating more

  • 00:09:56

    Obesity rates started to increase in 1980 — between 1980 and 2000, the number of calories in the
    food supply increased by nearly 1000. It went from about 3000 calories to 4000 calories a day,
    and people began eating more calories. And we need to look at why. And part of the reason for
    that was that the of what was the corporations had to respond to the shareholder value
    movement, which was a movement that required corporations to make returns to stockholders
    their very first priority. The food industry got hit hard by that because of the 4000 calorie-a-day
    problem. It’s hard to sell food in that kind of environment. So, food companies began making
    new products that were irresistible, delicious, inexpert inexpensive to produce, and extremely

  • 00:10:59

    What’s important to understand about Ultra-processed foods is that they are a very specific
    category of foods. And this specific category by now has been associated in at least 1000
    experiments. Since 2009, when the concept was developed, at least 1000 experiments, some of
    them very well done. Some of them systematic reviews and meta-analyses have demonstrated a
    very close association of consumption of ultra-processed foods with obesity, which, as we know,
    is a risk factor for type two diabetes, coronary heart disease, morbidity, and mortality, and these
    days COVID-19. So, a major public health priority is to reduce the intake of ultra-processed
    foods, not eliminate them entirely, but reduce them. This is a challenge to the food industry.

  • 00:11:59

    And I recognize that it is, but you’re not — I realize that you’re not a public health agency. But
    you need to take this concept seriously. We need to reduce our intake of ultra-processed foods.
    Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Marion Nestle.


    So, you’ve heard the first two opening statements, and now we go on to the third arguing yes in
    answer to the question, should we eat more processed foods? Here is Michael Gibney. Michael
    Gibney, ladies, and gentlemen.

    Michael Gibney:

    Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s nice to be here. They told me that I shouldn’t eat lowfat spreads or margarines that are high in fat and low and trans. Because they’re Ultra-processed,
    they contain additives. Where I come from, these products have lowered blood cholesterol by 50
    percent and made a very significant contribution to reducing cardiovascular disease. They also
    tell me the commercial toddler food is ultra-processed. We shouldn’t feed it to our children.
    And we’ll ask them later why because I don’t understand.

  • 00:12:59

    The people who promote Ultra-processed foods are always talking about natural. Well, let me
    give you some examples of how natural is not always great. In the United States, you fortify
    your flour with folic acid. You don’t add the folate that’s in present in foods in the breakfast
    foods you had this morning because that folate is very poorly absorbed. So, what the brave
    scientists did was they took it fully from plant foods, and they loved off to data molecules. They
    invented a thing called folic acid. It’s rapidly absorbed, rapidly transformed into the effective
    metabolize, and it has reduced the incidence of Spina Bifida by 50 percent. It’s fine if it is
    disease that confines people to wheelchairs, doubly incontinent, so that’s a win-win. Now, our
    health, our hearts, and our brains require Omega-3 fats, and these are derived from fatty fish.
    The fatty fish dine on marine algae.

  • 00:14:00

    But with declining fish stops, the environment couldn’t sustain the global supply of these fatty
    acids. So, instead, the smart engineers took the algae out of the Marine, the oceans grew them,
    and big bioprocessing units fed the output to farmed fish, and hey presto, problem again solved.
    Now turning to food additives, they tell me that lecithin is found in these vegetable fats is bad
    from a gossip it will erode the lining of the ocean. Now recent French study said shows that
    from industrially prepared foods, the intake of lecithin is 50 milligrams. Now, ladies and
    gentlemen, one hen’s egg, one hen’s egg contains three times that amount. I had two eggs for
    breakfast, and I feel good. And I just want to finish by saying that the future will do Man plantbased foods more and more.

  • 00:15:00

    In a recent study looked at the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diets of omnivores,
    Flexi bores, vegetarians, and vegans. And they found that as you move upwards in the groups
    consuming most plant-based foods, ultra-processed foods went up. Very simply, just like you
    can’t make an omelet without crack and eggs. You can’t make plant-based foods without
    processing engineering, and processing aids. Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Michael Gibney.


    And our final debater will be arguing no, in answer to the question, should we eat more
    processed foods? Please welcome Kevin Hall.

    Kevin Hall:

    Thanks very much. You know, if this debate had been held five years ago, I probably would
    have been arguing for the other side. You see, I’d spent my career at the National Institutes of
    Health studying the effects of different nutrients on the human body. Things like swapping carbs
    versus fat and how that affects people with obesity.

  • 00:16:00

    And then he heard about this new categorization of foods called the NOVA Categorization
    System that basically said nutrients. So, you guys are living in the Dark Ages. That’s not
    interesting. That’s not important anymore. It’s really about the purpose and extent of processing.
    And I thought that was nonsense. It was anti-science, it seemed like to me, you know, of course,
    it’s about nutrition, right? Nutrition and nutrients like those things are related. And so, you
    know, I asked the folks, I’m particularly interested in obesity, what is it that you think about
    these ultra-processed foods that’s causing obesity? And they said, Well, it’s the salt, the sugar
    and the fat and the low amounts of fiber. And I said, aha, you just named a bunch of nutrients.
    You can’t have it both ways. The debate is over. Well, you know, scientists can’t be satisfied
    with just a win on a rhetorical debate. One of the things that we could actually do is design an
    experiment. And so, that’s what I did.

  • 00:16:58

    We, with my colleagues at the NIH, we designed an experiment where we brought in 20 men and
    women to live with us at the NIH Clinical Center for a month. We designed two diets that were
    matched for the salt, the sugar, the fat, the fiber, the carbs. We asked people. We randomized
    them into two groups. One group started a very highly ultra-processed food that was matched
    for the salt, the sugar, the fat, and the fiber. And another group ate of a diet that had 0 percent
    ultra-processed food, basically asking them to eat as much or as little as they want. And after
    two weeks, we swapped them. And basically, the idea was, if it was about the nutrients, then
    there should be no difference in how many calories these people that night will be, right? Once
    again. However, I was drastically wrong. When these people were eating the ultra-processed
    diet, despite being matched for these nutrients of concern, they ate 500 calories per day more,
    they gained weight, and they gained body fat.

  • 00:18:00

    Whereas when they were eating the other diet, the unprocessed diet, they were losing weight and
    losing body fat. So, now we don’t know what the mechanism of that is. And as a scientist, I’m
    happy to be proven wrong. The science showed that there was something about these ultraprocessed foods that caused people to overeat and gain weight. Now we’re trying to figure out
    what is the mechanism because this category of ultra-processed food is very wide. And if we can
    figure out what the mechanisms are, then we can give some information about how to avoid
    them and how to reformulate potentially Ultra-processed foods. But right now, there’s simply
    too much.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Kevin Hall.


    And that concludes our first round of this Intelligence Squared U.S. debate where the question is,
    should we be eating more processed food? Now we move on to round two, and round two is
    more of a freewheeling discussion among the debaters. And I just want to say what I think we’ve
    heard in the opening statement is one side arguing that there’s something about the processing of
    food that makes it bad for people, particularly with a focus on nutrition, obesity.

  • 00:19:00

    You didn’t mention addiction, but I think that’s also part of the argument if you had more time.
    And the other side is saying that that’s nonsense, and that there’s some unfair associations being
    made with the term processing and ultra-processing and that in fact, processing can bring benefit
    to food, particularly nutritious benefit. And I want to go to Amy Webb on that point. Amy, your
    opponents, don’t. I’m not hearing your opponent’s dispute the argument that ultra-processed food
    can be sort of juiced with nutrients to improve their health benefit, the weight, the nutrient
    benefits the way that you mentioned, you saw it in the bread that you like, but there are they’re
    not arguing that that’s not true. They’re arguing that the other stuff that happens when food is
    processed to make it tastes good, added sugar, added fat, potentially other additives, other
    Michael challenges that, but they’re saying it’s the other stuff that happens during processing that
    builds their case for the dangers of processed — Ultra-processed foods.

  • 00:20:00

    What’s your response to that?

    Amy Webb:

    So, I was about to say I’m a social scientist, and I also run experiments. And I can tell you that
    when you run studies, you’ve got a control group, and then you’re testing for a narrow set of
    other outcomes. And what’s missing is the knock-on effect. So, let me continue with two
    examples. I sort of two of the three examples from the beginning in favor of why we need to
    broaden our thinking here. The second one had to do with interpretation. Milk is a dairy product
    that’s a group one food that is something we interpret as wholesome and good, and you can
    locally source it supports local economies. But what if wholesome, minimally processed foods
    are actually just as bad for us as what you heard from that experiment? Countless studies have
    proven that dairy products are actually not good. For many people, it causes inflammation. In
    fact, there are ample studies showing that in women, certain bacteria strains have found in
    natural organic yogurt are shown to increase the growth of uterine fibroids, which are benign
    growths but horrific.

  • 00:21:00

    They cause complications with pregnancy, excessive bleeding that can be very painful and lead
    to hysterectomy. Now, if you were to run a study, and you were trying to figure the outcomes
    based on calorie or based on choice, this is a variable that you would miss. And so, again, we
    start to miscategorized or miss label things. But the other point has to do with the application.
    I’m an endurance athlete, I am a long-distance cyclist, and I have to be very careful about what I
    put into my body. I have to stay hydrated. You know, I can’t stop for a nutritious home-cooked
    meal on mile 50 during a long ride. I rely on ultra-processed foods to perform at my peak. I eat
    gel. It’s designed to quickly absorb into my bloodstream. There are natural flavorings, you
    know, it’s fine for vegetarians. And literally, right now, the Tour de France is happening. The
    world’s most elite athletes are literally fueled by Ultra-processed food.

  • 00:21:58

    I live a privileged life, and I can choose to eat Jell, but there are billions of people around the
    world where nutrition is. And food scarcity is a real issue here. So, added nutrients, things that
    are shelf stable, you know, foods that can withstand supply chain interruptions, that food in the
    form of a cereal is a lifeline.

    John Donvan:

    Let me break in on you, Amy, to come back to Marion. And I didn’t hear Marion’s response to
    my question about the negative impact of some of the stuff that’s done during processing. But I’d
    like you to pick up to that. In other words, added sugar, added fat, et cetera. Again, I heard Amy
    making —

    Marion Nestle:

    Yeah, we have a definitional problem here. My understanding of my interpretation of ultraprocessed foods is that these are foods that are industrially produced —

    John Donvan:

    The gel, I’m thinking, would be industrial.

    Marion Nestle:

    I’m sorry?

    John Donvan:

    The gel would be industrially produced, I think. And the bread that Amy is talking about is
    large-scale production. So, I don’t think we’re having too much of a definitional problem.

    Marion Nestle:

    Oh, I think we are, actually.

  • 00:22:57

    But the point is that the amount of evidence that links consumption of ultra-processed as opposed
    to other kinds of processed foods to poor health outcomes is really pretty overwhelming by this
    time. It may be that these are correlational studies, and they don’t prove causation, which is why
    Kevin Hall’s experiment is so important. But there’s something about these foods that causes
    people to eat more, gain weight, develop Type Two Diabetes and all of these other conditions.
    We cannot ignore this literature. It is extraordinarily low, large, and consistent. And when you
    have a large, consistent body of research like that, you have to pay attention to it. And that’s I
    think why we think that there’s something about your processed foods that we would be better
    off eating fewer of.

    John Donvan:

    So, Michael Gibney, let me take it to you. You made a brief statement, I think, in defense of

  • 00:24:00

    And I happen to do a little research on what goes into margarine. So, there is dairy product in
    margarine, skim milk, but also saltwater oil derived from a plant plus emulsifiers lecithin, which
    you mentioned, and flavoring and color additives. There could be other nutritional inputs like
    Omega three, and then there are a process — they go through processes called hydrogenation
    agitation, pre-crystallization, that it’s temporary, and it’s ready to go. As Amy said in the
    beginning, that sort of his that’s the picture of her for a lot of people when they want to portray
    processed food as a bad thing, that there’s something, it seems like something very unnatural is
    being visited upon those ingredients. What’s your defensive margin in more detail? Well, and
    it’s meant, let’s assume that it’s up against butter.

    Michael Gibney:

    People forget that we have a regulatory system that has operated for over a century now. And
    which doesn’t allow us to add things to foods which are dangerous for us.

  • 00:25:00

    And when it happens, as I will mention, when it happens, and it does happen, they are removed
    or transformed. So, I would have to say that everything you put into your mouse has a riskbenefit Jewish. And the question is, if these margarines lower serum cholesterol, do they — are
    they good? And yes, the answer is very much so. But could I comment on something that was
    said earlier? This idea that no, that is the only classification of ultra-processor is rubbish.
    Marion did say that you shouldn’t ignore the literature. Well, they’re ignoring it because there
    are three other categories, University of North Carolina’s category, the Institute of Food
    information council’s category, and the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer category.
    One study took all of these and used a single database from Spain, a very comprehensive and
    famous database.

  • 00:26:00

    And they asked the question, let’s recode this database according to each of these four
    definitions, and they did, and they asked the question, what’s the impact on ultra-processed food,
    unhealthy? It was like snowflakes. NOVA showed an effect of ultra-fast food and obesity,
    known as the others, did. The University of North Carolina found an effect on blood pressure.
    None of the others did. And in every single metabolite they looked at. There was disagreement.
    Now, they can say they’re picking NOVA because it’s the most studied. It’s the most popular.
    That’s just not science. That’s not what’s done.


    John Donvan:

    Okay, Kevin, I want to move on to a different topic rather than debate the definition of NOVA
    right now. Because Amy made a point, that’s a more global point about what she was driving
    towards was that one of the benefits of processed food is that essentially, it’s put it simply, it’s
    going to help feed the world that there are places where the food, this food being cheaper,
    calorie-dense, et cetera, maybe the difference between eating and not eating for certain

  • 00:27:00

    And I want you to take on that argument.

    Kevin Hall:

    No, I don’t think anyone up here is arguing the fact that, you know, the food system that we have
    now, which has generated, according to NOVA, in the U.S., you know, more than 50 percent of
    the calories that are available, has gone a long way to addressing many of the problems of
    nutrition, that were, you know, really highlighted in the beginning of the 20th century provide an
    ample supply of calories and protein and micronutrients and vitamins to a population to sustain
    them. There’s no argument about that. It’s convenient. It’s cheap. It’s labor-saving; there’s all
    sorts of very positive aspects about Ultra-processed foods. So, maybe I shouldn’t be on the other
    side of the fence. But I think we —

    John Donvan:

    Don’t go too far.

    Kevin Hall:

    Yeah. What I think you can’t ignore is that there are some of the unintended consequences.

  • 00:28:00

    When we have, you know, 4000 calories per day available in our food supply in the U.S., we
    actually have wasted more food in recent years than we have eaten. It’s, it’s insane.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, let me take it to me. So, Amy, we did explore your point in your opponents, to some
    degree, conceded part of your point. But you, again, have not addressed the issue that they
    talked about the stuff that’s doing, causing to danger, obesity, certain food addiction, problems of
    sugar, salt, fats.

    Amy Webb:

    Yeah, it strikes me that my opponents want to have a debate about the future of the fast-food
    industry and how they’re marketing their products to people.

    John Donvan:

    I don’t think that I don’t think that’s fair to what they’re saying. I think you would make that
    argument about, potentially. I’m not sure what you say that about peanut butter and margarine
    and things like that butter is better and less ingredients, and peanut butter is better.

    Kevin Hall:

    Well, I mean, the margarine example is a really interesting example, right?

  • 00:28:59

    Because we had a whole period of time, where you know, ultra-processed margarine, which is
    still Ultra-processed, introduced trans fats into the food supply. But that was corrected decades
    to get, but I want to

    John Donvan:

    I want to give Amy a chance to answer this question. I just want to clarify, you are not just
    arguing against fast foods, and of course, no. Okay, so Amy, they’re not arguing.

    Amy Webb:

    That may be true, but unfortunately, the way that the contours of this debate are pushing into
    obesity and addiction, and quite frankly, nobody ever talks about being addicted to the gels that I
    eat on a long-distance ride. We have to broaden this conversation to make it more nuanced, and
    we cannot hang our opposition to ultra-processed foods on margarine on, you know, a few things
    that have been proven to be bad for us over time. There is a wealth of data and evidence
    supporting the fact that ultra-processed foods in the right circumstances and conditions are
    actually quite good for us. They’re good for local economies. They’re good for our bodies.

  • 00:30:00

    And they are there good for the public to obscure all of the other data and evidence that are out
    there because of a few experiments that are easy for us to conceptualize, I think is really giving
    short shrift to our potential futures. You’re a room full of researchers, we have scientists that are
    looking into new ways to sustain us, and we are going to need optionality given what’s
    happening with geopolitics, climate change, and instability within our global supply chains.
    Quite frankly, I’m not sure why we’re even arguing this point. Right now, to me, it’s very clear
    that the world benefits from having more Ultra-processed foods when we think about them in the
    right ways.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, that sounds like perfectly teed up for a response from Marion.

    Marion Nestle:

    The food industry benefits from ultra-processed foods because they’re among the most profitable
    foods on the market. What we have from Kevin Hall’s experiment is evidence that these foods
    encourage people to eat more than they should. And this is now a national problem of public
    health importance.

  • 00:31:00

    With three-quarters of American adults overweight by CDC standards, we really need to look at
    this as an enormous problem for our society. And if eating fewer processed foods is a way to
    approach that, I think we ought to look at that really seriously.

    Michael Gibney:

    Well, I think that the opposition are being a little disingenuous with the facts. In Kevin’s study,
    the people were offered foods with exactly the same calories, but they had to pick from the array
    of food in front of them because it’s what’s called adlib feeding. Well, the ones of the ultraprocessed food by chance picked energy-dense foods. So, they had a much higher energy
    density than the control group. Now I admire Kevin’s work. He’s a good friend. He’s trying
    another experiment, and the best of luck to him. It’s very, very hard to do. But the facts are
    energy density is probably a factor in this regard.

  • 00:32:00

    If I could just ask one question, why would commercial toddler food be banned? That’s
    effectively what NOVA is saying. Now you can what rap words around this baby commercial
    toddler foods. Not baby food, not infant formula, toddlers, you know the stuff in plastic jars or?
    Or go karts and things like, oh, sorry, no brand names, I apologize. Why is that being done?

    Kevin Hall:

    So, a couple of points, Michael. I think that rationalizing and explaining the effects is one thing,
    and then the observations are another. So, we can all sit down and say, oh, here’s the reasons
    why we obtained the results that we obtained in our study. But we actually have to do an
    additional experiment to prove it.

  • 00:32:57

    And so, what we’re left with, we’re left with a concept that ultra-processed foods as a category,
    very broad category too broad, in my opinion, have some deleterious health consequences when
    you define them by the NOVA categorization system. There’s no doubt about that. Now, we
    have to figure out what the mechanisms are. So, we can pick individual food items and ask the
    question, how can they possibly be bad, and we can have a rhetorical debate about how they
    might, may, or may not be bad on their own. But we actually have to do a study. We actually
    have to do the science to try to figure out what it is about these foods. That’s bad. Use that
    science to help reformulate products in order to make them better for us. There’s, and you don’t
    want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s all of these positive attributes I went over
    about Ultra-processed foods. And we don’t want to go back to the days where, you know, one
    member of our family was sitting at home cooking for the rest of the family, for the rest of us, for
    a huge portion of their day.

  • 00:33:57

    So, we need processed foods, and we need Ultra-processed foods, but we don’t need to eat more
    of them.


    John Donvan:

    Amy, Marion’s a couple of times made the point that for her part of what troubles her about the
    current arrangement and in the world of ultra-processed foods is that its manufacturing,
    distribution advertising is controlled by multinational corporations whose interests are not the
    same as the people who are eating the food. I would like you to take on that argument.

    Amy Webb:

    Absolutely. And I can see that point in very limited circumstances. The truth is that it’s a big
    wide world out there. There are plenty of global food manufacturers. Some of them make
    products designed to better design to continue to build its market share, but there are plenty of
    products again, I call back to this bread that’s, you know, that I’ve got that’s very much not
    designed to be addictive.

  • 00:34:56

    It is challenging to eat, but it’s nutrient dense. And it’s a wonderful alternative to what else I
    might have. And again, this is why I opened with an argument about words and labels. We have
    a global food challenge. We have an impending Global Water Challenge. So, if we allow
    ourselves to be so reductive to point fingers at the typical agricultural companies or the typical
    industrial food manufacturers and demonize them, without allowing ourselves more contours in
    the debate, we are, you know, doing actual irreparable harm to our futures, there is no way to get
    around that. So, absolutely, there are products that fit her definition. But there are also myriad
    products, not to mention many, many companies that are going in a different direction or offer
    alternative types of products. So, this is really about opening our minds to alternative
    possibilities for our futures, which we will need.

    John Donvan:

    I want to just take the challenge the other side. Are you opening your minds to alternative
    possibilities? Are you failing to do that?

  • 00:36:00

    Marion Nestle:

    You want to make sure to answer. I agree with everything that’s been said. Processed foods
    have their place in society. But to ignore the body of evidence that links this specific
    classification of foods with for health outcomes, it seems to me to be ignoring something that
    shouldn’t be ignored. And whether we like it or not, this concept of ultra-processed foods has
    opened up a way of experimentation that has given us a lot of evidence about the effects of food
    on the hills, and it’s evidence I think we cannot ignore.

    John Donvan:

    All right, that concludes round two of our Intelligence Squared U.S. debate. Thank you to our
    debaters for that.


    And now we move on to round three. And those will be closing statements by each debater.
    They will be getting [inaudible] minutes for that.

  • 00:37:00

    And speaking first and answering yes to the question, should we eat more processed foods?
    Here again, is Michael Gibney.

    Michael Gibney:

    Thank you very much. First of all, I’d like to thank my partners for a very interesting debate.
    Michael Pollan, the well-known American food writer, once wrote that you should never eat
    anything your granny wouldn’t recognize. Well, between my two grannies, they raised 17
    children, one on a carpenter’s wage in the slums of Dublin, one on the shepherd’s wage on a little
    cottage in the mountains. Their dad was monotonous, boring, and so on. If they got a day pass
    out of heaven and came down to earth to my local supermarket, they would believe there was a
    second heaven. Now, this idea of hankering after the past is what I call a — it’s a pastime of what
    I call the high priest of nutrition that tells us what and how to run our lives. And the idea that
    we’d all sit down together and heal it was a good idea.

  • 00:38:00

    But the reality is that society has put blocks in our way. Time is a big issue, not just absolute
    time, like long commutes and so forth. But relative times like scheduling the ins and outs and
    comings and goings of a complex family that have different tastes. So, convenience is a terribly
    important part of the modern food supply. Now, I have said that we are facing a future with
    challenges, or challenges with increasing or increasing global population in the Western world,
    increasing aging population, challenges to the supply lines, food insecurity, and so forth. And if
    we’re going to tackle those, as well as climate change, we are going to have to innovate, and in
    terms of climate change, that’s going to be more and more plant-based foods. And I think we
    have to have confidence in our regulatory system and confidence that we can do it.

  • 00:39:00

    I’d like to end with a quote from Charles Darwin. “It’s not the strongest of the species that
    survives, nor is it the most intelligent. It is the one that adapts best to change.” Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    Next up in arguing, no and answer to the question, should we eat more processed food? Making
    his closing statement, Kevin Hall.

    Kevin Hall:

    So, I’m going to continue to spend your tax dollars at the National Institutes of Health trying to
    figure out what it is about the ultra-processed foods and the diets that we give to people in these
    very controlled environments. What it is that causes people to overeat and gain weight
    spontaneously without trying to do so that’s going to take many years to try to figure this out.
    And I hope that the results of our research are going to help folks like you reformulate and make
    foods that are not going to have these negative health consequences.

  • 00:39:59

    Of course, even if we figure out just the calorie intake side of things, it doesn’t negate the fact
    that ultra-processed foods have been associated with a variety of other diseases. And it might be
    completely independent, or it might be just a knock-on follow-on. But we’re going to do our best
    to figure this out. One of my debaters on the other side suggested that words really matter. And
    I agree. And so, let’s look at the words in the resolution of this that we’re debating here. The
    question is, should we, a nation that is already overconsuming most of our calories coming from
    ultra-processed foods, eat more? I mean, just logic suggests, given the situation that we find
    ourselves in and you cannot vote otherwise, then to suggest that this is an answer is no. It does
    not mean we are demonizing Ultra-processed foods in doing, so that’s just logic. You have to
    vote no. We already eat too much Ultra-processed foods.

  • 00:41:00

    We eat too many calories. And to vote otherwise it’s just illogical.


    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Kevin Hall. And speaking next from her remote location and arguing on the yes side
    of the question. Here again, is Amy Webb.

    Amy Webb:

    Thank you, everyone. And I again want to thank our opponents for a spirited debate. I want to
    tell you a quick story about my dad. My dad is 80. He lives alone, actually not too far away
    from where all of you are in Chicago. And when the pandemic started, he lost his support
    network in quarantine. His friend groups were gone, the restaurants had closed, that impacted
    his nutrition. He has a whole bunch of very serious medical issues, which means that he has to
    have a specialized diet. Thankfully, mercifully, I found a delivery service that creates preprepared frozen meals. They are delivered once a week, and they fit the various criteria and
    definitions regardless of which model that you’re looking at for highly processed foods.

  • 00:42:00

    Now, these particular frozen meals are low in sodium, low glycemic index, low in fat, and
    somehow still pretty tasty. Essentially, these are the same meals that my father would have
    gotten inside of a hospital under a doctor’s care. My point is this is exactly what a doctor would
    have prescribed in another setting. But when we label a meal as Ultra-processed or created by an
    industrial manufacturer, something about it feels wrong. You’ve heard me say over and over
    again that words matter. The easiest way to create order out of deep uncertainty. And all of the
    change that we’re facing is to pick a few villains, the big, you know, food manufacturing
    companies that the big retailers, the big agricultural companies, you know, and a few positive
    examples to support those claims. But that’s incredibly reductive. You just heard my opponent
    talk about logic. Well, what’s harder here is flexible thinking.

  • 00:43:00

    You’ve heard my debate partner quote Darwin. “Those who survive are the ones who are most
    adaptable to change.” Ultra-processed foods it’s a huge category. Some of its bad, some of it is
    the result of evidence-based research back food science and innovation and investment into
    emerging food technologies. Should we eat more Ultra-processed food? When we think about
    things in a logical way? The obvious answer can be nothing other than yes.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Amy Webb. And our closing word. The last word goes to Marion Nestle, making
    her closing statement. On the no side of the question. Should we eat more processed foods?

    Marion Nestle:

    Well, obviously, I think no. Ultra-processed foods is the most important concept to come along
    and nutrition in a long time. And I think that Kevin Hall’s experiment is the most important
    nutrition experiment to have been done in decades. The 500 Calorie difference that he found is

  • 00:44:00

    Usually, diet studies show a difference of 50 calories, if that many, and those are considered to
    be good. I’ll give one example. I wrote a book called “Soda Politics” in 2015. And I wrote it as
    an advocacy manual for how to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. But I got
    I certainly did not write it as a diet manual. But I got letters afterwards saying, I read your book,
    I stopped drinking sodas. I lost 10 pounds. I read your book. I stopped drinking sodas. I lost 20
    pounds, 40 pounds. The record was 80 pounds. Cutting down on ultra-processed foods has a
    really good chance of helping us control what is an important public health problem. And I think
    we need to eat less of them. I realized that this is a challenge to the food industry. And I hope
    that it’s one you will take really seriously.

  • 00:45:00

    Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Marion Nestle. And thank you to all of our debaters for this spirited debate. And
    now it’s time to learn where you are on this question. After hearing all of the arguments, we’d
    like to ask you to vote a second time. Please do that by again, going to your cell phone and
    scanning the QR code that’s in your program, or go to ift.org/debate to cast your second vote, and
    you will then find instructions that are on the screen and also in your programs. And what we
    are looking to see is how many people actually change their minds in the course of the debate.
    Who was persuaded? So, I’m going to have the results in just a moment or two, but you know,
    this felt like a conversation that could have gone on for another several days. And so, since we
    have a few minutes, I just wanted to continue it, something that did not come up. Actually, what
    I think I heard happening in this debate is the side that was arguing for more processed foods was
    saying, let’s have more good, processed foods, and decided against we’re saying let’s have fewer
    bad processed foods.

  • 00:46:00

    And that seemed to develop a middle ground. But it was the more question that Kevin raised at
    the end. And I want to take that to you, Amy, as you’re a futurist, you know, we didn’t talk a lot
    about what your career is, but you look down the road and talk about technology and innovation
    and where things are going and problems that can be solved. And, and so more sort of suggests,
    I think in a futuristic world, it came up plant-based foods, lab-grown meat, for example, which I
    guess everybody would consider. Would everybody consider lab-grown meat highly processed?
    Yeah. But where would you fit that into this conversation?

    Amy Webb:

    Sure. So, I realized futurist is kind of a silly-sounding job title. My background is in game
    theory and economics. So, I use data and build models and do lots of deep research to figure out
    plausible alternatives. When I think of the word more, I’m thinking about optionality.

  • 00:47:00

    So, different types of. You heard my partner talk about bioreactors. This is a way of not just
    creating plant-based proteins, but actually, cellular meat-based proteins, take cells from a
    chicken, incubate them in a bioreactor without any of the additives that we currently have in the
    commercial meat supply system today, and outcomes, edible tissue, that is by orders of
    magnitude better than what we have access to right now, there is a future in which more forms of
    ultra-processed foods actually accomplish the same goals as that locally sourced locally grown
    food that is more sustainable, better for the environment, and actually more nutrition dense. So,
    part of the challenge here is, from my point of view, I get very worried when we immediately —
    Ultra process sounds really scary. And there’s so many examples of how these types of labels
    have led to what I would consider terrorism. In farms in the food supplies, we have to get past
    this and have a more nuanced conversation.

  • 00:48:00

    And these labeling systems, the classification systems, which are in a line, to begin with, you
    know, we’ve seen problems with that in the fields of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, you
    know, automation, we could go on and on. So, I understand why they exist. But I think we also
    need to, you know, acknowledge that they can be incredibly problematic because we’re doing
    this long-term planning for the future.

    John Donvan:

    I’d just like to hear the other side respond to the part of your argument where you said that sort of
    lab-grown meat would have benefits for the environment. And that really didn’t become a big
    part of the conversation that we had, overall, the issue of ultra-processing, ultra-processed foods,
    and the environment. But would one of you want to take on the issue of lab-grown meat? Do
    you consider that a good direction to move things in? If we can do it?

    Marion Nestle:

    I’d say the jury’s still out. On the environmental impact of the studies you’re being done, I want
    to see the science on it.

  • 00:48:59

    Amy Webb:

    There’s plenty of science, and even the word lab grown, I think, is a dangerous area of territory to
    weigh into because it connotes images and ideas that I don’t think are useful. So, there’s actually
    ample work done not by big bioreactors but all different types of researchers from all around the
    world. It’s a more reasonable way, once we can achieve scale to produce a protein that’s
    arguably better for the resources that otherwise would be consumed. It’s better for the animals.
    It’s better for us. It’s just different.

    John Donvan:

    Yeah. Kevin, did you want to?

    Kevin Hall:

    Yeah, I mean, I think that part of the key there is arguably right, so we actually have to do the
    science to figure this out. And what we’ve observed is that there are a lot of unintended
    consequences of, you know, genuine, legitimate efforts to improve the foods that we produce.
    And we have to actually do the science to figure out if there are unintended consequences.

  • 00:49:59

    John Donvan:

    But Michael, your argument is the regulatory process is there to catch these issues. So, your
    argument would be that the regulatory process is there to keep an eye over this.

    Michael Gibney:

    Yeah. And if we’re fairly well, if you think of acrylamide, we don’t have it as a problem
    anymore. Trans fats are gone. BSE is being doused as I chaired the European Committee on
    that issue. There are lots of examples of problems that came we dealt with, and they’re gone.
    And that will continue to happen. That’s why we have a strong regulatory system.

    John Donvan:

    All right, I have the final results. So, just to remind you, we asked you to vote before you heard
    the arguments. And again, after you heard the arguments, and we’re interested to look at is
    which side was able to change more people’s minds. So, here are our numbers on the first vote.
    And on the question, should we eat more processed foods? 52 percent of you here at the IFT
    conference said yes, 28 percent said no, and 20 percent were undecided. So, again, the number
    that we’re looking at is that change between the first and the second vote.

  • 00:51:00

    And the second vote, the team arguing yes for the motion, their vote went from 52 percent to 52
    percent, held absolutely steady, flat, zero. Let’s look at the other side. Their first vote was 28
    percent. And their second vote was 33 percent. So, they gained five percentage points. They
    got 5 percent of you to change their minds. So, congratulations on that. But I want to say this is
    not over. We keep this as just the vote here at the live audience today at the IFT conference. We
    are keeping this vote open for millions of listeners on radio and on podcast, and online Google
    also has a chance to vote and weigh in on this incredible debate. One more time. I want to thank
    the Institute of Food Technologists for having us here at Intelligence Squared. Again, I really
    want to thank these four debaters for the way you did this. I want to thank all of you for
    attending and voting, and applauding.

    [music playing]

    So, thanks. I’m John Donvan. We’ll see you next time.

    [end of transcript]

    This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please excuse any errors.








Change in voter behavior
28% - Remained on the Side
4% - Swung from the Side
5% - Swung from Undecided
Change in voter behavior
3% - Swung from the Side
41% - Remained on the Side
6% - Swung from Undecided
Change in voter behavior
2% - Swung from the Side
8% - Remained Undecided
4% - Swung from the Side

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