The transnational ultra-processed food system has created a dietary environment that is “inherently violent” to our bodies, the doctor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken, has told Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy in a major interview to coincide with publication of his book Ultra-Processed People.
Van Tulleklen also warned that those campaigning for regulation of ultra-processed foods (UPF) should expect to come under attack from the food industry and “cast as misogynists or people who further want to disadvantage or further stigmatise the populations who are being predated on by the companies themselves”.
A formal category
One of the reasons the food industry is rattled by growing calls for action on ultra-processed foods (a large industry-led fight-back is wll under way), says van Tulleken, is that campaigners are now armed with a scientifically based definition of unhealthy food in the form of the NOVA classification (based on the ‘extent’, ‘purpose’ and ‘nature’ of food processing). “Ultra-processed food is not an informal term like junk food, it’s a formal category of foods, based on a very long scientific definition. It’s long, because it has to encompass so many different processes. But it boils down to this: if it’s wrapped in plastic and it contains at least one ingredient that you don’t find in a typical domestic kitchen then it’s an ultra processed food. Things like xanthan gum, emulsifiers, flavourings, artificial and natural sweeteners – they are all examples of ultra processed food additives.”
The scale of the problem (it’s huge)
Early on in the interview, van Tulleken sets out the sheer scale of the problem. “In 2019, diet – which is mostly an ultra-processed food diet – overtook smoking as the biggest cause of premature death globally. Ultra-processed food is everywhere, because for every real food there is an ultra-processed alternative that is much a better way of extracting money from. The high Street is full of factory made fried chicken and burgers, processed pizzas and ice cream – and almost all of that is ultra-processed. But almost all of our supermarket bread is ultra-processed, most of our fruit yoghurts are ultra-processed, almost all of our breakfast cereals are ultra-processed. At the moment, ultra processed food makes up about 60% of the calories we eat on average. And for a young adult, teen, child or even baby it can make up between 70, 80 and 100% of intake.”
Processing is fine, ultra-processing isn’t
Questioned on the difference between processed and ultra-processed food, and why a sharp distinction is being made, van Tulleken says: “Processing is ancient. Humans are what we call obligate processivores, we have to process our food. Compared to other animals that are our size we have one of the shortest digestive tracts in nature, we have tiny teeth and jaws. We’ve extended our digestive biology outside of our bodies. We did that with the invention of cooking over one million years ago. Since then, mainly female domestic scientists have been grinding, pulverising, extracting molecules, drying, salting and smoking food – we’ve been doing all these processes. We can find evidence of dairying going back 6000 years – shards of pottery with traces of dairy fats that we know have been processed. So we’ve been making butter for thousands of years – and butter is fine. But the invention of margarine, where we take a liquid plant oil that will spoil quickly, and refine it, deodorise it, bleach it, interesterify it, hydrogenate it to make it solid, then emulsify it with monoglycerides of fatty acids, and then add colourings and flavours to turn it into synthetic butter – that’s new. And our bodies are poorly evolved to deal with those processes. But, very broadly, processed foods are fine.”
Designed for overconsumption
Van Tulleken explains that additives like xanthan gum, emulsifiers, flavourings, artificial and natural sweeteners are “the way that we recognise an ultra-processed food” and “have powerful effects on the microbiome, palate and internal physiology” – but are only part of the problem. “There are a number of ways ultra-processed food effects our biology. For the most part it’s incredibly soft and incredibly energy dense. So, gramme for gramme, it contains a lot of calories. And because of the softness and the energy density we consume it at a far faster rate than our internal system, which should be telling us to stop eating, can handle. When you’re eating some fried chicken, or burger or some breakfast cereal, there are the illusions of texture. Crunches and pops and snaps, dry bits and chewy bits and so on. But it’s all inhalably fast to eat. The hormones that should be telling you to stop, just can’t keep up.
“When you’re eating some fried chicken, or burger or some breakfast cereal, there are the illusions of texture. Crunches and pops and snaps, dry bits and chewy bits and so on. But it’s all inhalably fast to eat. The hormones that should be telling you to stop, just can’t keep up. Ultra-processed foods are designed for hyper-palatability
“Ultra-processed foods are designed for hyper-palatability. Just think about the standard British lunch of a sandwich, crunchy stuff in a bag and fizzy drink – it really is our national lunch. All of that is ultra-processed food. And nobody in the history of that lunch has every even left a few crisps in the bag. Even though that lunch might be 900-1200 calories. People are becoming overweight, not because of a choice they’re making, but because the food they eat is designed to drive excess consumption.”
… and for financialised growth (not nourishment)
Van Tulleken says that the very purpose of UPF is different. “Ultra-processed food is not really food at all, it’s an industrially produced edible substance. And its purpose is financialised growth, which isn’t quite the same as profit – it has a specific meaning. The traditional roles of food and eating – social, cultural, nutritional – are being destroyed by the very small number of huge food corporations that produce our food. There are 10 to 15 companies, by most accounts, by some accounts just four, who make most of the calories that we eat.”
The chocolate brownie test
In the interview Van Tulleken compares a home-made chocolate brownie with an ultra-processed version. “No one has actually done this direct comparison. But there is lots of evidence that the shop bought one would have a much smaller particle size, so you will absorb it faster. It’s been a lot more aggressively processed, physically. It will be extruded and mechanically recovered. It will have been made with ratios of salt and sugar that we know drive hyper palatability.
“With the home made brownie, someone at home has baked you a delicious chocolate brownie to satisfy you, to nourish you and to create a bond for some love and for pleasure. So, again, the purpose of the making is fundamentally different.”
“With that shop bought chocolate brownie, it will have a mix of traditional molecules, and then it will contain things which are there to save money. Dairy fats will be replaced by these very modified plant fats. And they are fantastically cheap. So if you can use a solid palm fat, compared to dairy butter that could be 10 times cheaper. Some of the fats will interact with our bodies in harmful ways, we think. Emulsifiers will be in there to bind everything together. And there is really very good evidence that emulsifiers damage our microbiome, the friendly bacteria that live in our gut.
The problem with emulsifiers
“Emulsifiers exist in nature. When you make a salad dressing, mustard is an emulsifier – or you could use egg yolk. But there’s something very different about the emulsifiers you will find in ultra-processed foods like lethicins, carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbates. For these, there’s really good research, published in major journals, which show that emulsifiers – which are essentially forms of detergents that bind water to fat – are potentially scrubbing out the gut, changing the thickness of the (gastrointestinal) mucus and altering the populations of the bugs that live inside us.”
“there’s really good research, published in major journals, which show that emulsifiers – which are essentially forms of detergents that bind water to fat – are potentially scrubbing out the gut, changing the thickness of the (gastrointestinal) mucus and altering the populations of the bugs that live inside us”
Standing up to the UPF industry
Van Tulleken is not calling for UPF to be banned, nor does he want it to be taxed. But he insists there is a “desperate” need for regulation. He would like to see ultra-processed foods labelled clearly as such – with a short explanatory text, and possibly a symbol (in Chile, he points out, ultra-processed food is labelled with a black hexagon – a response to rocketing levels of obesity in the country). And he is calling for much tougher restrictions on the marketing of UPF.
Van Tulleken says that given the context (“one in five primary school children is leaving school obese, and almost all will suffer from a range of diet related diseases in later life”) what he is calling for is “very light regulation”. But he recognises that major obstacles stand in the way of progress.
Total regulatory capture
“There has been a near total capture of policymakers themselves, the charities and big organisations that inform policy and the medical profession, by the companies that make them.” This the thing he most wants to see exposed and confronted. “If I could change just one thing it would be to get doctors and charities to stop accepting money from corporations that generate profits from products that cause diet related disease in children. We really do need to think about how much these children will suffer in childhood, and then in adult life”. He also says it is vital to acknowledge that people who do suffer from diet-related disease are not responsible for it. “It is a problem of genes, interacting with an environment that is inherently violent and that is what needs regulating.”
Van Tulleken says we need a cultural change in which we start to regard the big food companies in the same that we see the tobacco companies (there is growing evidence, including results of neuroimaging, to show that UPF and tobacco are similarly addictive). “Regarding the food companies in the same way that we view the tobacco companies is important, because we will have to refuse their money, we will have to start doing research that isn’t funded by them, and the charities that advocate for change will have to stop taking their money too.”
“There has been a near total capture of policymakers themselves, the charities and big organisations that inform policy and the medical profession, by the companies that make them.
Is he worried about unintended consequences of taking on the powerful corporations who make and sell UPF? “I think the industry will be very clever here. They will cast those who critique ultra-processed foods as misogynists, or people who further want to disadvantage or further stigmatise the populations who are being predated on by the companies themselves.
“Our work is made all the more difficult by the fact that the whole world is ultra-processed. Our apps, music, and games – they’re all ultra-processed. These are all mechanisms being created to make it almost impossible for us not to overconsume them. It’s a brilliant way of making money, and it’s a particularly effective way of commodifying the ill health of the most disadvantaged people on Earth and further enriching people who already have more money than they know what to do with.”
Watch the full video here at Channel 4 News