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What is the purpose of ultra-processed food? An exploratory analysis of the financialisation of ultra-processed food corporations and implications for public health

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journal contribution
posted on 2024-07-02, 23:56 authored by Ben WoodBen Wood, E Robinson, P Baker, G Paraje, M Mialon, C van Tulleken, Gary SacksGary Sacks
Abstract Background In recent decades there has been a global rise in consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) to the detriment of population health and the environment. Large corporations that have focused heavily on low-cost manufacturing and extensive marketing of UPFs to maximise profits have driven this dietary transition. The same corporations claim to serve the interests of multiple ‘stakeholders’, and that they are contributing to sustainable development. This paper aimed to test these claims by examining the degree to which UPF corporations have become ‘financialised’, focusing on the extent to which they have prioritised the financial interests of their shareholders relative to other actors, as well as the role that various types of investors have played in influencing their governance. Findings were used to inform discussion on policy responses to improve the healthiness of population diets. Methods We adopted an exploratory research design using multiple methods. We conducted quantitative analysis of the financial data of U.S. listed food and agricultural corporations between 1962 and 2021, share ownership data of a selection of UPF corporations, and proxy voting data of a selection of investors between 2012 and 2022. We also conducted targeted narrative reviews using structured and branching searches of academic and grey literature. Results Since the 1980s, corporations that depend heavily on manufacturing and marketing UPFs to generate profits have been increasingly transferring money to their shareholders relative to their total revenue, and at a level considerably higher than other food and agricultural sectors. In recent years, large hedge fund managers have had a substantial influence on the governance of major UPF corporations in their pursuit of maximising short-term returns. In comparison, shareholders seeking to take steps to improve population diets have had limited influence, in part because large asset managers mostly oppose public health-related shareholder proposals. Conclusions The operationalisation of ‘shareholder primacy’ by major UPF corporations has driven inequity and undermines their claims that they are creating ‘value’ for diverse actors. Measures that protect population diets and food systems from the extractive forces of financialisation are likely needed as part of efforts to improve the healthiness of population diets.



Globalization and Health



Article number





London, Eng.







Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal




BioMed Central