How did our diets become so dominated by ultra-processed food and what is it doing to us?
Ultra-processed food is getting a lot of attention recently and it’s not only because of our Taking the Biscuit campaign.
This week, our friend and ally, Chris van Tulleken, Broadcaster and Infectious Diseases Doctor, published his much-awaited book, Ultra-Processed People. It’s a fascinating, important and informative read.
Chris is a huge advocate for action to address the over-consumption of ultra-processed food and championed our Taking the Biscuit campaign by providing a voice-over for the film.
Ultra-processed food is everywhere!
Ultra-Processed People explains how ultra-processed food (also known as UPF) dominates our diets from breakfast through to lunch and dinner with everyday foods not necessarily what they appear. Chris highlights how ultra-processed foods are everywhere, providing a cheap, convenient way to eat and easily identifiable by the fact they are wrapped in plastic and contain at least one ingredient you wouldn’t find in a household kitchen.
But, as he explains, growing evidence supports concerns that our over-consumption of these foods is causing a range of health outcomes from depression to cancer. How is it that, despite these risks, ultra-processed food has taken over our diets, he asks?
It’s the processing that’s the problem
Much of the focus on improving the healthiness of our diets by policymakers and industry and even many nutrition scientists is on reducing the well-known “problem” nutrients – fat, salt and sugar. But Chris explains that even when these are controlled for in the diet, life-expectancy, cancer, inflammation and weight gain remain the same. It is the processing that is the problem.
Processing removes water from products to increase shelf-life, making them calorie dense and their softness results in fast consumption which means you continue to eat even when you should be feeling full. Additionally, additives affect our mental health and emulsifiers interrupt our gut microbiome, so important for keeping healthy.
Ultra-processed People is a personal journey
As well as a thorough analysis of the science, Ultra-Processed People is a personal journey too. Chris describes his experiment with UPFs, in which he consumed an 80% UPF diet for a month, documented for the BBC in What Are We Feeding Our Kids?. He gained a great deal of weight and found his hunger hormones were highly elevated, meaning his hunger wasn’t satisfied after eating and, in his brain, signs of addiction to UPFs were starting to form.
Chris’ favourite food, takeaway fried chicken, is not something he can now eat. All that he now knows about UPFs and their impact on our bodies, has meant he can no longer stomach them. What’s more, he makes them sound rather disgusting. Xantham gum, a common ingredient in ultra-processed foods is, he finds, “slime that bacteria produce to allow them to cling to surfaces”. Coco Pops are described as “predominantly a slick of wet starchy globs”. There are terrifying stories too, about food made from synthetic materials including coal and manufactured products approved for consumption without a clear idea of their long-term effects. He reports on the crisis of tooth decay in children which Chris claims is “almost entirely due to UPF”.
Chris talks to a wide range of people including some of our heroes, experts who are sticking their necks out to highlight the impact of the dominance of UPF in our diets. From Carlos Monteiro, whose research team at the University of Sao Paulo invented the term NOVA to define UPFs, to Kevin Hall, whose randomised control study has been so widely cited as evidence that it’s not the nutrients in UPFs that cause weight gain but something to do with the processing itself and Anthony Fardet, who has championed the food matrix and the importance of the structure of food to how we digest it and absorb its goodness, all of which is removed by ultra-processing.
Chris also talks to teenagers about their food preferences and how cost and advertising (and special offers for McDonald’s on bus tickets!) influence their choices. He also reports on his observations of watching his own very young children consume UPFs, seemingly unable to stop to the point they had consumed almost a day’s worth of calories in one breakfast sitting of Coco Pops.
UPFs also cause environmental destruction
Chris exposes UPFs as “a particular driver of carbon emissions and environmental destruction”. His book includes an interview with my colleague, Rob Percival, who notes that “the prevalence of UPF in our diet is symptomatic of a sickly food system” in which “agribusinesses have invested in a handful of high-yield crops and products” fuelled by pesticide and fertiliser inputs which, to be profitable, are either feed to livestock to produce meat or processed into UPFs. The book’s chapter on the environmental impacts of UPFs includes reference to the subject of our Stop Poison Poultry campaign, soya production in Latin America for chicken feed in the UK and elsewhere and the subsequent increase in cancer-causing pesticides in soya producing countries. He even promotes agroecology.
So what’s the answer?
Chris ultimately explains that the over-consumption of UPFs is not down to personal choice. These products are cheap and aggressively marketed and target the poorest in society. The food system, the cost of healthy food and the influence the food industry has on our consumption habits and what and how we eat, need to change. We couldn’t agree more!