In a recently published article; Bee Wilson recounts her childhood memories of mindlessly eating – what we now know to be – ultra processed foods, describing the oncoming guilt and self-blame following this. Reading the in-depth description brought on emotions that were all too familiar. So many people would share the same memory, I’m sure, of never feeling satiated by that seemingly never-ending crisp packet. But was this really a result of lack of self-control, or was the very thing we were consuming scientifically modified to cause this insatiable hunger? In Wilson’s article (linked at the end of this post) she dives into the world of ultra processed foods (UPF’s) and the research behind them. What was once a correlational relationship between processed foods and our health, appears to be becoming more of a causal relationship that needs to be addressed.
The Modern Woman
When we look back in time and at which point processed foods started to come into production, we will arrive at post-war Britain. Women had become accustomed to picking up mens work, and perhaps even enjoyed it, and thus a woman’s place was no longer in the home, but now also had responsibility in providing for her family. This caused a dramatic shift in not only how society viewed women and their responsibilities, but also that there was now a new demand for convenience food. Women were no longer at home all day to prepare fresh home cooked-meals. In terms of equality; this was undoubtedly a step forward. However; accommodations were not made to suit this new societal shift. For example, working hours and the working week remained the same, even though there was now a new pool of people to employ to increase productivity – not to mention that women were on lower wages! Meaning that from a family perspective, neither parent had the time to prepare a meal.
People’s shopping habits changed from consistently picking up fresh food, to buying less perishable items once a week or longer. Following a previously rationed diet, people enjoyed indulging without worrying about what it was made of. Processed or not, convenience foods were exciting and new, and now an essential part of everyone’s diet. This need for convenience food has grown to what is in today’s society with the many delivery apps available, people are so accustomed to making an order and having their food delivered within 20 minutes, completely severing the ties between where our food comes from, how the meal is made, and the process of bringing that food to our door. This can be seen in a video that went viral not too long ago of a woman demanding the delivery driver bring her food up to her apartment, demonstrating a complete change in consumer behaviour – some argue this to be an example of negative solidarity. Long gone are the times of home cooked meals, we are now in the new age of fast-paced lives and even faster delivered food.
Years later, processed and ultra processed foods now fill entire ailes at supermarkets, but what are ‘processed foods’? Wilson claims that it is an undefined term that the ‘food industry has exploited’ for years as ‘a way to defend its additive-laden products’. But can we blame people for being unfamiliar with the term when the only guidance for consumers is a traffic light system of nutrition information on the front of a packaged food item. In reality, you have to read the fine print to discover what is really in your food and how processed it is or not, and then you have to read between the lines to discover any additional things that are in food items that, by law, do not need to be disclosed. The current guidelines view the nutritional information in isolation, rather than what was done to the product to give it the apparent nutrition. This is a far outdated system, along with the food pyramid, that has clearly not aided the obesity epidemic that we, as a country, are currently struggling with. It is estimated that 1 in 4 adults and alarmingly 1 in 5 children are currently struggling with obesity. The only solutions the government has implemented is nutritional information (still not requiring every element to be disclosed) and making it mandatory for calories to be displayed – this is simply not good enough! Not to mention how many people will struggle with calorie information being forced on them, considering 725,000 people are affected by eating disorders each year.
The current ‘Eatwell Guide’ on the NHS website offers vague prompts such as ‘5-a-day’ or ‘starchy foods should make up a third of what we eat’ and urging people to opt for the ‘lower-fat and lower-sugar products’. On paper, lower-fat could appear to be the better option, without taking into consideration what was done to that particular product to make a lower-fat option possible. Strictly looking at calories, removing fat from a product lowers the amount of calories, and eating fewer calories than you burn in a day, (calorie deficit), is a proven way to lose weight. But what calories don’t tell you is the nutritional content of that food product. 200 calories of vegetables and 200 calories of chocolate cannot be compared as their nutritional values differ enormously. Opting for the lower-fat option may deceive people into believing they are making a healthier choice, when in fact with the fat removed that product is now less satiating, and double the amount could be consumed to reach some level of satisfaction, or twice the number of calories could be consumed elsewhere. A study at the end of 2018 by Kevin Hall and his colleagues became the first scientists to test – in randomised controlled conditions – whether diets high in ultra-processed foods could actually cause overeating and weight gain. Wilson goes into great detail on this study, but to summarise; participants who ate a highly processed diet ended up consuming 500 calories more than those on a mostly unprocessed diet. Furthermore; ‘blood tests showed that the hormones in the body responsible for hunger remained elevated on the ultra-processed diet compared to the unprocessed diet’. Clearly the participants found the processed diets less satiating and therefore consumed more calories to make up for this, proving our nutrition guideline is begging for some reform.
Brazil Leading by Example: The Nova System
Unlike the rest of the world, in 2014 Brazil decided to approach the health of their nation in a new way – by advising its citizens to avoid ultra processed foods completely. Seen as a drastic measure with little scientific evidence by the rest of the world, many snubbed this new way of categorising food, claiming that it implemented shock and fear, and that avoiding UPF’s was an impossible task. However, Brazil continued and started to treat food processing as ‘the single most important issue in public health’. It transformed the way people viewed their food, transitioning from viewing nutritional information in a solitary way to focussing on the degree to which the food item had been processed.
With this, came the introduction of ‘The Nova System’. Aptly named as Nova means ‘new star’, and much like Polaris, the North Star, the Nova System is certainly something that should be followed. The system was created by a Brazilian Scientist, Carlos Monteiro, who noticed the paradox that ‘people appeared to be buying less sugar, yet obesity and type 2 diabetes were going up’ it was following this that he discovered the importance of UPF’s on our health.
The system encompasses four categories of food based on the degree to which they are processed: ranging from group 1 (the least processed) to group 4 (UPF’s). What makes the Nova System even more unique is that it views food not just in their nutritional content, or even how much they are processed, but also how they are used and consumed. For example; group 2 or the ‘processed culinary ingredients’ contains food that can be used in conjunction with group 1 foods to make them more delicious, like butter or oil. This is an important distinction as it makes people aware that you do not have to stay away from processed foods completely and deprive yourself of the pleasures of food, but when used in small quantities to enhance flavour, the health implications will be minimal. However; when group 2 is compared to group 4 (UPF’s) there are many overlapping foods, because the same sugar and oil could now contain emulsifiers, flavourings or additives to enhance their natural flavour.
It is clear that The Nova System is unlike any other currently used in the world, and it is unlikely to be perfect at this stage. However; the science so far supports the theory that processed foods have a great effect on our health and the growing obesity epidemic. The current food classification system, particularly in the UK, clearly isn’t working. Is the government avoiding reform in the health sector to avoid a public outcry at the dramatically changing categorisation, the shock that what we have been told for years could potentially be wrong? Are they scared to follow the science, or just ignorant – if the past year has proved anything it is that both seem to be true! Or is it that food reform would be too expensive, which poses the question if the government cares more about the financial costs over the cost to our health.
The Class Divide and Nutrition
The elephant in the room would be the obviously higher cost of fresh food compared to UPF’s, and how this marginalises or demonises a whole class of people for no fault of their own. With UPF’s containing so many additives and emulsifiers, this extends their shelf life and actually makes them cheaper to mass produce, with most of the work being done by machines. The truth of the matter is that human labour, fresh produce and organic food costs more than mass produced industrialised foods, and for many, this is a luxury that they simply cannot afford. Instead of making healthy food cheaper, the government’s solution was to increase the cost of unhealthy food, which only affects people on a low income making more good food further out of their reach.
An example of this can be seen in the Free School Meal Voucher disaster this past year, where the government replaced these vouchers with food being chosen for them. Not only did this remove a parents’ right in choosing what to feed their child, but also the food that was provided was hardly nutritious and even in some examples appeared to be barely enough food to sustain them. The most prominent example being a loaf of white bread with cheese slices, intended to supply a child with lunch for a week. Some parents claimed to be able to purchase the food they were supplied with for £5 compared to the £15 voucher they were receiving prior. This just demonstrates where the government’s priorities are; certainly not on the health of us or our children.
Another issue with avoiding UPF’s is the different dietary requirements that people may have. For example; many ‘meat alternatives’ will most likely fall into group 4 of the Nova System, leaving people to balance their personal ethics with their health. Reducing our consumption of meat is one of the biggest actions we can each personally take to slow global warming. Yes, consuming meat alternatives is a choice, but many people struggle to get their protein intake from nuts, legumes or dairy products alone, not to mention that many meat alternatives add a lot of flavour to a meal. So perhaps a potential adjustment of The Nova System would be to have diet recommendations for people with dietary requirements.
The Future of Food Consumption
Now being more aware of what UPF’s are and their detrimental effects on our health, it will be interesting to note whether any changes will occur. It is highly unlikely that the Nova System will suddenly be implemented all around the world, I’m sure studies will be published in years time with its either success or failure at improving the health of the people of Brazil. What is certain is that the way in which we view the food we consume needs to change, reform is on the horizon, we just need to get there.
In a recently published article; Bee Wilson recounts her childhood memories of mindlessly eating – what we now know to be – ultra processed foods, describing the oncoming guilt and self-blame following this. Reading the in-depth description brought on emotions that were all too familiar. So many people would share the same memory, I’m sure, of never feeling satiated by that seemingly never-ending crisp packet. But was this really a result of lack of self-control, or was the very thing we were consuming scientifically modified to cause this insatiable hunger?
Bee Wilson’s Article: