I try to repress the fact that I have a sweets drawer in my office. Every morning I get a little wave of excitement at the thought of opening it. Inside is a stash of the things I love to eat: Belvita Breakfast bars, Cadbury’s Snack, a packet of Hobnobs. Despite my knowledge of the marketing that brings these items into my drawer, my body and my life (this is my area of research), I think of this drawer as a personal failing.
That was until I read Ultra Processed People. A molecular virologist, Chris van Tulleken, mixes an intensely personal story about eating ultra-processed food (UPF) with the authority of a scientist, all couched in a billion-year roller-coaster journey of human eating.
This extraordinary book starts with the results of his experiment to go on a 80% ultra-processed food diet for a month. He tucks into his first meal – Kellogg’s Coco-Pops – which he shares with his four year old: “I started to wonder when she would 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 chocolatey…The texture of the first mouthful is extraordinary…but three spoons in, the joy was gone what remained was a brown sludge…Lyra and I were drawn to our next mouthfuls just like smokers to the next drag.” What is it about this food that makes the eating of it so compulsive? Van Tulleken, a lifelong lover of UPF and someone who struggles with weight, debunks three things: it’s not about sugar, it’s not about exercise and it’s not about willpower.
Rather, the food itself is purposely engineered to be consumed to excess. Van Tulleken describes how ‘ultra-processed’ differs from food that has been processed (cooked, dried, smoked, and so on). First, it’s the novel ingredients. The emulsifiers, colourings, humectants, stabilisers, foaming agents, bulking agents, gelling agents, antioxidants, bleaching agents and flavourings. These mimic real ingredients to keep manufacturing costs to an absolute minimum.
Second, it’s the novel processes. The food is engineered to be soft. Do you know that weird slime sensation of Coca-Pops in your mouth after its initial crunch? You swallow this slime easily and quickly. Too quickly, it turns out. When real food goes down slowly, it stimulates the release of satiety hormones in the intestine. UPFs bypass this.
The third difference is a business case. The motivation to introduce novel products and processes is not to extend the shelf life (this was the reason for processing since time immemorial). Rather, it’s engineered to stimulate overconsumption. Because the grey chunks that constitute the raw materials of this stuff are disgusting, chemicals and processes are used to mask the smell and taste of it.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that “society selects its dead”. We are undertaking a massive experiment. The experiment is being conducted on all of us. The institutions that are conducting the experiment are food brands and food processors (among them Kerry Group, who get special mention). They clamour to ultra-process their products to make them easy to overeat. These are not only the “junk food” brands, but brands in the staple categories of cereal, bread and dairy. The state’s response is to request “reformulation” – reducing the salt, sugar and fat in these foods. An utter boon for ultra-processors.
Van Tulleken talks through the evidence that UPF is dangerous to health. Two things deserve particular mention: even when salt, sugar and saturated fats in UPF are reduced, the rates of disease persist. Another thing that makes me nervous – as a skinny person who eats too much ultra-processed food, thinking that I am escaping the problem because I’m not overweight – is that the studies show strong associations between UPF and cancer, dementia and depression.
The book is full of humour (he xanthan gum in the salad dressing is the same stuff that clings on to that tube in the bottom of the dishwasher); and full of humanity (he struggles, like most of us, with the lure of UPF and, like most of us, he fails). He also lands the punch where it is actually needed: not on us who eat this “sh** food”, not on those who work in the corporations that manufacture it, not on the farmers who struggle in a gamed market, but on the corporations themselves. Kerry Group’s profit for 2022 was €8.8 billion. They and others have changed our physiology by dressing up ultra-processing with the fig leaves of “safety” and “sustainability” – fig leaves that van Tulleken comprehensively exposes.
There are solutions. Last week the Climate and Health Alliance launched Fixing Food Together. Unprocessing food – making it more local, more basic and cheaper, giving the power, the profit and the privilege of eating back to the farmers, the communities and the families.
Norah Campbell is a lecturer in critical marketing at Trinity College Dublin