Ultra-Processed – Ultra Scary?

For as long as I can remember, there have been food scares. Eat x, we are told, and you'll get cancer or high cholesterol or have a heart attack. These things went in cycles, and were usually debunked fairly shortly thereafter. Milk, potatoes and eggs have all come in for the treatment.

In recent times, however, there have been a couple of studies whose conclusions have been rather more worrying. Instead of focussing on naturally occurring foodstuffs, these have looked at what are now known as ultra-processed foods (UPF). You may not be familiar with the term. It was coined by scientists in Brazil in 2010. They classified food into four groups, the fourth being dubbed ultra-processed.

Hang on, I hear you say, we all process food. It's called cooking. Indeed, and I have no intention of renaming Friday's column, Tom Processes! But what we do at home involves taking group 1 foodstuffs (in general terms, raw materials) and combining them with group 2 processed culinary ingredients such as oil, salt, sugar etc. The group 3 processed food refers to mixtures of 1 and 2, processed mainly for preservation. Think salted nuts, tinned fish, fruit in syrup and the like. UPFs are in group 4.

The problem with an article on UPF is that the Brazilian definition is about as long as the average On The Side column. Dr Chris van Tulleken has written a book on the subject, Ultra-Processed People. It is fascinating and frightening in equal measures. He tries to break down the definition into bite sized chunks. It begins, formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.

It gets worse, but we don't have space. Van Tulleken's rough and ready yardstick is that it's likely to be UPF if it's wrapped in plastic and contains at least one ingredient which you wouldn't usually find in a standard kitchen. So we're talking about breakfast cereals, fizzy drinks, low fat yoghurts, mass produced bread, protein bars and, my own particular bugbear, margarine. Many of them come with outrageous health claims, despite high levels of sugar and salt. One chocolate cereal claims to contain 50% of your daily Vitamin D and 30% less sugar (see the small print -  than other chocolate cereals).

In the UK the average person's diet is 55% UPF. At the European Society of Cardiology conference this year it was reported that those with the highest consumption rates are 24% more likely to suffer a stroke or a heart attack. Every 10% increase in the proportion of UPF in one's diet increases the risk of heart disease by 6%. They are also associated with diabetes, depression, dementia and cancer.

At one time the risks were thought to be mainly due to high levels of fats, salt and sugar. It is now believed that it is the industrial processing which is to blame, degrading the structure of the foods themselves. And let's not get started on our soaring levels of obesity.

Food for thought, indeed.



Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken is published by Cornerstone Press.

ISBN 9781529900057     Price £22


1 Comment

  1. Sandra Taylorson on 11th November 2023 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you for your offering on Wednesday – Ultra-processed: Ultra Scary

    The wider subjects of obesity, heart disease and diabetes that are sweeping the world regularly attract my attention.

    I started life as a domestic science teacher in the mid 70’s when children were taught the basics of cookery, a healthy diet and hygiene.
    One may sneer at apple pies, stews and soups being carried home slopping about in school bags, but at least the children got to see, touch and prepare ingredients, made with real food.

    In 1976 I worked in Central Region Education Authority. I attended a meeting where a trial to make Home Economics an academic subject to be taken at Higher level was discussed . I was a junior teacher at that meeting and I suggested that if I wanted to become a brain surgeon I would not be taking Home Economics. I was never invited to another meeting.

    I abandoned Home Economics when they started designing pizzas in cardboard.

    Last month I listened to Henry Dimbleby at Wigton Book Festival talking about his book Ravenous. (It is on my book list along with Dr van Tulleken’s book.)

    My précis of Mr Dimbleby’s hour on stage was thus:
    Obesity and diabetes – just give them the injections.
    (Note: Ozempic and the like are free in England, but not in Scotland.)
    Education – the ‘grey pound’ who were listening to his talk in Wigton should offer their services and volunteer to go in to school to teach the children about real food and cookery.

    I’m off into the local primary school with my apron, The Glasgow Cookery Book and a recipe for leek and tattie soup.
    Made using butter!

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