I try to suppress the fact that I have a candy drawer in my office. Every morning I get a little rush of excitement at the thought of opening it. Inside is a stash of the things I love to eat: Belvita Breakfast bars, Cadburys Snacks, a packet of Hobnobs. Despite my knowledge of marketing getting these items into my drawer, into my body, and into my life (that’s my area of research), I think of this drawer as a personal failure.
That was until I read Ultra Processed People. A molecular virologist, Chris van Tulleken, mixes an intensely personal story about the consumption of ultra-processed food (UPF) with the authority of a scientist, all delivered in a roller-coaster ride of billions of years of human nutrition.
This amazing book begins with the results of his experiment of eating an 80% ultra-processed food diet for one month. She tucks into her first Kelloggs Coco-Pops meal which she shares with her four-year-old: I started to wonder when she’d stop. I thought about the comparison with smoking while we ate. The first spoonful was ecstatic for both of us. The cereal is rich, complex and immensely chocolaty The texture of the first bite is amazing but after three spoonfuls, the joy was gone what was left was a brown goo Lyra and I were drawn into our next bites just like the smokers from the next puff. What is it about this food that makes eating it so compulsive? Van Tulleken, a lifelong UPF lover and someone who struggles with weight, debunks three things: It’s not about the sugar, it’s not about the exercise, and it’s not about willpower.
Rather, the food itself is specially designed to be eaten in excess. Van Tulleken describes how ultra-processed differs from food that has been processed (cooked, dried, smoked, and so on). First, it’s the new ingredients. Emulsifiers, colorants, humectants, stabilizers, blowing agents, bulking agents, gelling agents, antioxidants, bleaching agents and flavourings. These mimic real ingredients to keep production costs to an absolute minimum.
Secondly, it’s the new processes. The food is designed to be soft. You know that weird Coke-Pops slime feeling in your mouth after its initial crunch? You swallow this slime easily and quickly. Too fast, it turns out. When real food goes down slowly, it stimulates the release of satiety hormones in your gut. UPFs get around that.
The third difference is a business case. The motivation for introducing new products and processes is not to extend shelf life (this has been the reason for processing since time immemorial). Rather, it is designed to stimulate binge drinking. Because the gray bits that make up the raw materials of this stuff are disgusting, chemicals and processes are used to mask their smell and taste.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that society chooses its dead. We are embarking on a huge experiment. The experiment is being conducted on all of us. The institutions conducting the experiment are food brands and food processors (including Kerry Group, which receives a special mention). They are clamoring to over-process their produce to make it easy to overeat. These aren’t just junk food brands, but brands in the basic cereal, bread, and dairy categories. The state’s response is to request reformulation that reduces the salt, sugar and fat in these foods. A real boon for ultra-processors.
Van Tulleken talks about the evidence that UPF is dangerous to health. Two things deserve special mention: Even when salt, sugar, and saturated fat in UPF are reduced, disease rates persist. Another thing that makes me nervous as a thin person who eats too much ultra-processed food, thinking I’m escaping the problem because I’m not overweight is that studies show strong associations between UPF and cancer, dementia, and depression.
The book is filled with humor (the xanthan gum in salad dressing is the same stuff that clings to that little tube in the bottom of the dishwasher); and full of humanity (it struggles, like most of us, with the lure of the UPF and, like most of us, fails). It also hits where it really counts: not on us eating this crap food, not on those who work in the corporations that make it, not on the farmers struggling in a game market, but on the corporations themselves. Kerry Group profit for 2022 was 8.8 billion. They and others have changed our physiology by dressing ultra-processing with the fig leaves of safety and sustainability fig leaves that van Tulleken expounds comprehensively.
There are solutions. Last week the Climate and Health Alliance launched Fixing Food Together. Don’t transform food by making it more local, simpler and cheaper, giving the power, profit and privilege of eating back to farmers, communities and families.
Norah Campbell is Lecturer in Critical Marketing at Trinity College Dublin
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