Concoctions of concoctions: UK slow to grasp the health impacts of ultra processed food

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The UK is failing to grasp the full extent of the damaging health impacts of ultra processed food (UPF), the doctor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken warned this week. 

In a segment for the BBC’s Today show, aired just ahead of the launch of a new National Food Strategy, he said there was now a “mountain of evidence” to show that UPF was a driver of obesity and other health problems. 

Dr Eszter Vamos, a researcher at Imperial College London, told van Tulleken that in contrast to many other countries, where increasing attention is being given to UPF’s health impacts (it is also being acknowledged and acted upon by the World Health Organisation and United Nations), the UK continues to focus on the ‘nutritional profiles’ of food; typically using salt, saturated fats and sugar levels to define a healthy or unhealthy food product. 

Definitive study
Van Tulleken spoke with professor Kevin Hall, a physiologist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the US, widely considered to have conducted the definitive study in the field. In the study, volunteers were placed on one of two different diets. Both were identical in terms of fat, salt, sugar and fibre levels, but one of them was wholefood and the other ultra processed.

Hall told van Tulleken: “When (subjects) were exposed to the ultra processed food they spontaneously increased their calorie intake by 500 calories per day, every day, for the two week period they were on this diet – compared to the unprocessed diet. Over the period, they gained a kilogram of bodyweight, much of it coming from body fat. Those on the opposite (wholefood) diet – and remember they’re not trying to change their weight in any way, in fact they are blinded to their weight – spontaneously lost weight, and lost body fat.”

Concoctions of conconctions
So, how can we recognise ultra processed food, van Tulleken asked the food writer Bee Wilson. She told him: “One of the definitions of UPFs is that they are so altered that you can’t even recognise the underlying ingredients. These are products that are made from other refined products. They are concoctions of concoctions, they are so highly engineered.”

“Basically, what it is, is a load of monocultured refined wheat, loads of refined sugar, probably some vegetable oil and emulsifiers – and a bit of flavouring to trick your brain”

Van Tulleken asked for Wilson’s verdict on “some slightly artisan brioche rolls”, he had bought (among the ingredients of which were, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids and soy lethcicin). She told him: “That’s a highly ultra processed product. Basically, what it is, is a load of monocultured refined wheat, loads of refined sugar, probably some vegetable oil and emulsifiers – and a bit of flavouring to trick your brain”. 

Van Tulleken concluded: “Whether or not you accept the definitions around ultra processed food, our current national understanding of nutrition doesn’t seem to be working. There is just still so much that we don’t know about the effects of this food on our bodies, and on the bodies of our children. The question is, with what we do know, can we afford not to take action on ultra processed food?”