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5 June 2023

The ultra-processed food swindle

Engineered to trick our taste buds and appetites, artificially produced food is ruining our health and damaging our children. But who will stand up to an industry that acts with impunity?

By Sophie McBain

Years ago, when I lived in Egypt, a colleague brought in a packet of mini doughnuts from the commissary at the American embassy. These doughnuts had a fragile sugar shell that gave way to light, melt-in-the mouth sponge; they were a way to mainline sugar and fat while feeling as if you were eating vanilla-scented air. They were not food but something closer to witchcraft, an ingenious blend of flavourings and preservatives, some of which are probably banned in Europe. How many could I have eaten, were I not surrounded by dozens of people? At least ten, I’d guess, and I might not have even felt full.

The doughnuts were memorable because I ate so little processed food at the time – but they also represented an extreme. Most ultra-processed food (UPF) operates on similar principles. The balance of sugar, salt and fat is designed to be irresistible (often the ratio of carbs to fat mirrors breast milk): experts call this “hyper-palatability”. Bite into UPF and you will feel a slight crunch – the wafer-thin crust of a burger bun, the snap of a Pringle, the crispy batter on a chicken nugget – before the food turns to mush on your tongue.

[See also: The identity politics of the coronation quiche]

This is food engineered to override your appetite: you eat so fast you don’t notice you’re full. UK dentists report more overbites in children because modern convenience foods require so little chewing. It’s also food that hoodwinks your senses: when we register the umami hit of a cheese-and-onion crisp, our brains expect something rich and satisfying, not a sad mouthful of starch. Ice cream is too cold to smell, and so some manufacturers use caramel-scented wrappers to prime consumers.

The doughnuts, at least, weren’t pretending to be healthy, but you can find plenty of UPF in health-food shops: nut milks and protein bars or vegan and low-sugar chocolates. Scientists argue over the definition, but in his new book Ultra-Processed People, the infectious disease doctor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken suggests a rule of thumb: “if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t usually find in a standard home kitchen, it’s UPF”. He cites emerging evidence that the problem with UPF isn’t only that it is generally high in fat, salt and sugar: there are inherent harms to eating ingredients that have undergone complex, industrial processes and are preserved, bulked out or rendered palatable by artificial additives.

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One experiment that placed each participant on two consecutive diets – an ultra-processed diet and an unprocessed one that was identical in terms of fat, salt, sugar and fibre – found that people gained weight eating UPF and often lost it while eating unprocessed food. A British Medical Journal cohort study of 100,000 people living in France, which ran from 2009 to 2017, found that a 10 per cent increase in UPF consumed corresponded to a 12 per cent increase in rates of cancer. Other studies have shown a correlation between UPF consumption and rates of obesity, depression, dementia, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

The average Brit consumes 57 per cent of their calories in the form of UPF and eats about 8kg of food additives a year. Not only are the long-term effects of these additives dangerously unstudied, but a diet high in UPF is low in the vitamins and micronutrients that our bodies need to stay healthy. It also disrupts our microbiome, the delicate balance of gut bacteria that we are only now learning plays a huge role in our physical and mental health. And so, UK children are not only becoming fatter but also shorter – they consume too much but are malnourished.

Before reading Ultra-Processed People I was relatively blasé about processed food, partly as a reaction to the kind of diet advice administered by anti-scientific wellness influencers, whose concerns about chemicals and toxins often mask eating disorders. Van Tulleken is convinced that knowing the science will be enough to put you off UPF. But, although his book is deeply researched and persuasive, most of us already practise considerable cognitive dissonance as consumers (how else can anyone still buy fast fashion or eat supermarket meat?). The statistics that Van Tulleken marshals are shocking, and yet many of the problems with our diets are so obvious that even Donald Trump has intuited them. In a chapter about the problems with artificial sweeteners, Van Tulleken quotes a series of tweets from the former US president, musing on how Diet Coke makes people gain weight and become hungrier. “The Coca-Cola company is not happy with me – that’s OK, I’ll still keep drinking that garbage,” Trump concludes.

Even for health-conscious, middle-class consumers, giving up UPF is hard: you have to swear off not just McDonald’s but Pret sandwiches, not just chocolate bars but most breakfast cereals – and most fruit yoghurts, condiments, biscuits, crisps. It is harder still for less affluent households. The issue isn’t a lack of awareness or cost alone. It’s that eating fresh, unprocessed foods requires having the time and equipment to cook, and the money and space to buy in bulk. Meanwhile, UPF companies are expanding into new markets, exporting our dysfunctional Western diets to the Global South and calling this progress. It is enraging to read Van Tulleken’s account of a Nestlé boat – a floating supermarket – that penetrated rural Brazil and left in its wake a shocking rise in obesity and diabetes among young children. They became the first generation to eat a diet centred not on rice and beans but on packaged goods.

Boycotting UPF will undoubtedly improve your personal health. But it’s a lot to expect individuals to resist a multi-billion-dollar industry determined to sell us as much processed food as possible. We need more government action. Van Tulleken does not outline specific policies but prioritises preventing UPF manufacturers from funding scientific research (which generally skews in their favour) and from shaping government food policies, both through direct lobbying and sponsorship of think tanks and charities.

[See also: Minette Batters: “Food cannot be the poor relation to the environment”]

In Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet into Shape, Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, offers more detail on potential solutions. Dimbleby recently resigned as the UK’s food tsar, criticising the government’s “insane” inaction over obesity. He had conducted an independent review of the food system, but his recommendations – such as an expansion of free school meals, a salt and sugar tax, and a ban on pre-9pm junk-food adverts on TV – have been delayed or ignored.

In Ravenous, he suggests that system dynamics offer a way to conceptualise the damage wreaked by the modern food industry – and how to fix it. System dynamics is a field of mathematics that breaks complex systems into component parts, making it easier to chart how even a small change can have considerable knock-on effects. Using systems theory you can identify reinforcing feedback loops (for example, when people eat more because they feel unhappy and overweight) or “systems traps” such as “seeking the wrong goal” (as with our focus on economic growth over personal and planetary well-being) or “boiling the frog” (the tendency to adjust to gradual decline). This may sound a little dry and wonkish, but Ravenous, co-written with Jemima Lewis, a journalist and Dimbleby’s wife, is an engaging read that sets out the scope of the problem with clarity.

Since 1992 the UK government has launched 689 anti-obesity initiatives. Each has had little success, because the government remains wedded to the idea of personal responsibility – asking people to resist temptation in an obesogenic environment, rather than changing that environment itself. Dimbleby argues that resetting our relationship with food will be difficult and complex, but that with enough political will it’s possible.

Fifty years ago, men in North Karelia in Finland had the highest rate of heart disease in the world, thanks to their high-fat, virtually vegetable-free diet. A comprehensive package of health initiatives launched in the Seventies – including new bike paths, a ban on tobacco advertising, healthy school meals, a new recipe book introducing vegetables to traditional cuisine, and encouraging companies to reduce fat and salt in their products – reversed this trend. By 2009 the mortality rate from heart disease had fallen by 85 per cent in North Karelia and average life expectancy across Finland rose by seven years for men and six for women.

In Japan the healthy life expectancy (the number of years the average person lives without experiencing significant illness or disability) is 74.1, compared to 66 in America and 70 in the UK. Their healthy national diet is not the result of good luck but successive government policies. In the UK we might be resistant to “Metabo law”, which requires older adults to have their waistline measured annually, but Japan’s insistence that children under 16 are guaranteed free healthy school meals ought to be an easier sell.

Despite Jamie Oliver’s high-profile campaign against Turkey Twizzlers and junk food in schools, many schoolchildren are still served ultra-processed, unhealthy dinners – in part because in the past decade, the funding rate for school food has fallen by 16 per cent in real terms. Meanwhile, teachers report that ever more pupils are going hungry: 1.7 million children whose families receive Universal Credit are not eligible for free school lunches. Labour’s Zarah Sultana has introduced a bill that would extend free school meals to all primary-school children. Here’s hoping her fellow MPs are reading Ravenous.

[See also: Henry Dimbleby: fake meat is a trade-off worth making]

Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food… and Why Can’t We Stop?
Chris van Tulleken
Cornerstone, 384pp, £22

Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet Into Shape
Henry Dimbleby and Jemima Lewis
Profile, 336pp, £16.99

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This article was originally published on 30 April.

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown