Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken how our food has turned into garbage

On Monday, the World Health Organization released new guidelines advising non-diabetic consumers not to use non-sugar sweeteners to control weight. His top nutritionist said: NSS are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value. Yet incarnations of NSS, such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia, can be found scattered throughout common foods and drinks, especially low-fat versions that claim to be good for health.

The announcement will come as no surprise to London podcaster, TV presenter and infectious disease doctor Chris van Tulleken. In Ultra-processed people, a fearless investigation into how we’ve become addicted to ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, van Tulleken identifies sweeteners as just one component of a modern nutritional landscape in which the majority of our calories come from food products containing new synthetic molecules never found in nature. We are no longer eating food, an academic memorably tells him, but industrially produced edible substance. These substances are formed using a mix of cheap ingredients, mechanical processes and synthetic additives such as stabilizers and flavors.

These foods are so prolific that, in industrialized countries such as the UK, the average person ingests 8kg of additives a year, four times the weight of flour we purchase each year for home baking. However, it’s not so much the additives themselves that are the problem, but the diets associated with them. Tragically, van Tulleken writes, echoing food activist Henry Dimbleby’s recent book Hungrythose modern fad diets are proving to be harmful: to the waistline, to the teeth, to the gut microbiome and to the environment.

Its key message will rock you in your beliefs: If an ingredient on a package of food isn’t what you’d normally use in a home kitchen, it’s UPF. Once you start seeing them soy lecithin or glucose-fructose syrup, for example, you spy them everywhere. And, if there’s any justice, these compelling, well-documented expositions will put politicians to shame and shake the food industry to its money-driven core.

Cover of the book Ultra-processed people

The era of UPF consumption probably began in 1879, when chemist Constantin Fahlberg experimented with coal tar in an attempt to produce medical compounds. He inadvertently created saccharin, a compound 300 times sweeter than sugar and, thanks to the World War I sugar shortage, the first fully synthetic compound to be added to the diet on a large scale. A new era of synthetic food chemistry followed, in which such ingredients helped make mass-produced food cheaper and more palatable, as well as more durable and easier to transport.

For cost-conscious and time-strapped consumers, these innovations have been a godsend. But processed foods, we now know, also seem to drive overconsumption. If you, like me, have ever wondered how the French manage to stay slim on croissants, butter and wine, the evidence put forward by van Tulleken seems to suggest that it’s because they eat real sugars, real fats and real carbohydrates, which are less processed and which do not bypass the body’s ability to regulate intake.

Ultra-processed people, based on a documentary that saw van Tulleken follow a diet of 80 percent UPF for a month, is more than just a big book of science: it examines a complex issue of cultural, social, economic, and political significance with clarity and sensitivity but without moralizing; competently evaluates the scientific literature; and wander the world in search of answers.

Importantly, it analyzes how we got here, with increasing numbers of people living with obesity and diabetes. The food industry by recruiting compliant scientists, funding studies, pushing clever marketing messages, and influencing policy has been able to concoct a self-serving narrative that shifts blame for the harm caused by their products. It’s not chips and soda that make us fat, we’re deceptively led to believe, but our shortcomings in the form of a sedentary lifestyle and weak willpower.

Nutrition science is full of conflicts of interest, whether it’s companies pushing infant formula in low-income countries or KFC engaging with charities working on obesity policy. Industry, van Tulleken rightly believes, should never be at the political table: nobody thinks so [tobacco company] Philip Morris should fund the doctors who generate research on whether smoking harms you… [or that] tobacco legislation should be written by charities funded by British American Tobacco. Why should food policy on health be any different?

That culture persists. When the WHO sweetener story came out this week, I scanned responses from various scientists. Most Approved; one comment stood out as more equivocal. A conflict of interest statement showed that the scientist had previously worked with the International Sweeteners Association. That’s when I got the salt.

Ultra-processed people: Why do we all eat things that aren’t food… and why can’t we stop? by Chris van Tulleken Cornerstone Press 22, 384 pages

Anjana Ahuja he is a scientific commentator

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