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?
“Still, some health officials and national governments have seized on processing as a culprit in the global epidemic of obesity and related diseases.”
“If you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.”
“However odd this project may seem, it shows what soon will be possible with homegrown food science. We’re approaching a world where the divide between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’ collapses, where amateurs in their kitchens can fiddle with life to make edible substances that are both artisanal and the most radically processed foods ever made.”
“Emerging processes, such as high-pressure processing, pulsed electric field, pulsed lights, cold atmospheric plasma, microwave, ohmic heating, and ultrasound, are being pursued as alternatives as they are seen as more sustainable processes.”
“Advanced food processing technologies such as those described in this article will allow for improved safety and quality in a variety of foods and formulated food products, and for new applications in product development and process optimization.”
“Also, in regard to processing, organic food consumers are more sensitive to and prefer natural, healthy, and environmentally sustainable food products.”
“While participants gave varied description of ‘processed food,’ it was recognized that professionals tend to have a broad conceptualization of the term, for instance, any change made to a food from its natural state, but there was acknowledgement that this breadth may be unhelpful in terms of research or communication.”
“Two studies reported that consumers expect authentic products that reflect healthiness, led them to infer that reliable or conveyed dubious statements designs… are generally perceived as harmful to health.”
“We identify several ways that ultra-processing should be considered when estimating environmental and health impacts of diets.”
“But measuring the total carbon footprint of any type of food – from processing to packaging to health impacts – isn’t straightforward.”
“Food, therefore, lies at the heart of trying to tackle climate change, reducing water stress, pollution, restoring lands back to forest or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife.”
“Processed foods get a bad rap, and that’s not always fair. Sure, salty chips and sugary cereals aren’t a great source of nutrients…. But there are plenty of processed options that are healthy.”
“That said, the use of processed foods is the choice of the consumer, and there are pros and cons that come with each type.”
“Whenever possible, try to avoid or limit ultra-processed foods.”
“The nutritional fundamentals accepted by the World Health Organization and most nutritional authorities today include vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruit as healthy foods; and salt, saturated fat, and excess sugar as disease causing.”
“Thus, reducing our consumption and production of these foods offers a unique opportunity to improve both our health and the environmental sustainability of the food system.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
To vote no would be to deny us optionality.
Thank you, Amy Webb.
Our next debater is arguing no to the question, and that is Marion Nestle. Marion, the floor is
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
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
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
What's your response to that?
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.
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.
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.
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
Yeah, we have a definitional problem here. My understanding of my interpretation of ultraprocessed foods is that these are foods that are industrially produced --
The gel, I'm thinking, would be industrial.
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.
Oh, I think we are, actually.
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.
So, Michael Gibney, let me take it to you. You made a brief statement, I think, in defense of
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.
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.
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
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.
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
And I want you to take on that argument.
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 --
Don't go too far.
Yeah. What I think you can't ignore is that there are some of the unintended consequences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, I mean, the margarine example is a really interesting example, right?
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
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.
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.
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
Okay, that sounds like perfectly teed up for a response from Marion.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
So, we need processed foods, and we need Ultra-processed foods, but we don't need to eat more
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.
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.
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.
I want to just take the challenge the other side. Are you opening your minds to alternative
possibilities? Are you failing to do that?
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.
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.
And speaking first and answering yes to the question, should we eat more processed foods?
Here again, is 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.
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.
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.
Next up in arguing, no and answer to the question, should we eat more processed food? Making
his closing statement, 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.
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.
We eat too many calories. And to vote otherwise it's just illogical.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Yeah. Kevin, did you want to?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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