In a new documentary ‘What Are We Feeding Our Kids’; Dr Chris van Tulleken investigates ‘ultra processed foods’ (UPF’S) and the dangers they pose to our bodies. After years of watching the number of obesity cases in the UK rise, a causal link has now been identified between UPF’s and human health. But why has this link not been made a public health priority? The government may claim plausible deniability, whilst the food industry rejects such links. In a market so saturated with UPF’s; how are we able to change what we eat when it so heavily defines our culture and therefore who we are?
The Issue with Ultra Processed Foods
Despite ultra processed foods (UPF’s) being the subject of an increased amount of scientific research that supports the hypothesis stating they are detrimental to our health, the term UPF actually still lacks a scientific definition. There has always been an issue surrounding diet and vagueness, such as the over-suggested ‘eat more fruit and vegetables’ trope or ‘5 a day’, without explaining how they differ from a packet of crisps. Some may wonder why there seems to be an incessant need to over-analyse everything, and that it should be kept simple – avoid processed foods and consume more whole foods. Whilst this could be an ideal message to send out to the public, proved by Brazil, France and Canada who advised their citizens to avoid UPF’s; the truth is that without a scientific definition it leaves the research open to criticism from the powerful food business lobby. This was demonstrated in the documentary by Tim Rycroft, part of the food and drink federation, who stated he rejects the data presented to him for this very reason – lack of a scientific definition. Although frustrating; how can new guidelines be implemented if there isn’t a scientific definition of the term? For example do we categorise UPF’s based on the type of food, such as ready meals and chocolate? Or do we categorise them on what they are made of – a list of chemicals that no one actually knows or recognises. Would it be more accurate to categorise food based on the quantity of additives that it contains? Unfortunately these questions remain unanswered; can the level of processing even be measured? Only time will tell.
The scientific evidence I am alluding to in particular is the research done by scientist Kevin Hall who, like many others, was sceptical of the claims being made about UPF’s and the new Nova System of food categorisation that goes along with it. This has also been mentioned in a previous blog post so I will refrain from going into detail again. This coupled with correlational data, also mentioned in the documentary itself, forms a causal relationship between the consumption of UPF’s and our health. Tulleken visits Shawn Somers, a consultant surgeon who advises the government on obesity policy. Somers explains how he sees ‘younger and younger people needing weight loss surgery following childhood obesity’ and that the ‘real problem is the availability of vast quantities of industrialised food’. Not only has the obesity epidemic gotten continually worse, but the average age has gotten younger. If these statements are being made by a scientist who advises the government on obesity policy, why has nothing changed yet?
The Food Industry Giants
There are ten food companies that control the entire food industry: Nestle, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, Kelloggs, Mars, Associated British Foods and Mondelez. Almost all UPFs are created by these companies. Very few consumers realise that actually, when they are buying their favourite brands of cereal, crisps, chocolate, yoghurt or anything else, they are supporting one of these ten food industry giants. Did these companies intentionally set out to create food to cause adverse health effects, addictive tendencies and even death in some people? I would hope not! But the singular thing that drives these companies is not consumers, health, or even the quality of their food… It’s profit.
This was actually admitted by Tim Rycroft, part of the food and drink federation, who are supposedly ‘the voice of the UK food and drink industry’. When asked point-blank If faced with a choice between profit and public health, what would be the priority – shockingly, Rycroft answered profit. This answer clearly demonstrates how little these corporations actually care about their consumers and their health. I find it shocking that disregard for human health can be so blatant. Perfectly summarised by Somers: ‘modern processed foods suit the food industry, not us’, and nothing else could be more clear.
It isn’t just the foods that are filling the shelves at supermarkets, or what they’re made of, it’s everything from ingredients to the marketing of each product that contribute to every single purchase. Many UPF’s are actually marketed towards children. How is it morally acceptable to encourage children onto a path of obesity and food addiction?
The New Data
Many critics would claim that foods now being identified as UPF’s is simply a scaremongering tactic, but that is a far cry from the truth. When we look at how shopping habits have changed over the years, it demonstrates how widely available UPF’s have become. Demonstrated visually in the documentary; In 1980, 50% of household expenditure on food was spent on fresh ingredients, whereas 26% was spent on convenience foods. In 20 years this shrank to 28% on fresh ingredients and 44% on convenience foods. This has resulted in 57% of calories consumed in the UK now coming from ultra processed foods. Amongst children it is 64% and amongst adolescents it is 68%. The clear correlation between these data and the rising obesity crisis cannot be ignored.
There is even more alarming data on UPF’s and their effect on our health. Adding to Kevin Hall’s experiment, Tulleken underwent a study of his own, spending four weeks eating a diet where 80% of his calories were from UPF’s (the same diet that 1 in 5 people currently have in the UK), a drastic change from his previous 20% from UPF’s. In four weeks not only did his physical appearance change, increasing weight by 6.5kgs and 3kg of body fat, but also he chemically changed. The ‘hunger hormone’ measure in his blood showed an increase by 30% compared to the test done prior to the experiment, whereas the ‘fullness hormone’ showed a decrease. So a diet of mostly UPF’s resulted in Tulleken feeling more hungry but not feeling as full or satisfied after eating. Neurologically, the diet resulted in new connections in the brain being made between the reward centre and the part that drives repetitive, automatic behaviour – eating UPF’s now becomes something his brain tells him to do. Similar responses can be seen in someone with addiction. This revelation was just as shocking to Tulleken as it is to us. It just clearly identifies how little research has been done on food items that consumers eat every single day. Tulleken also quite rightly exclaimed that ‘Children’s brains are still developing and are much more malleable than adult brains’, if these are the changes noted in an adult male body, then it could potentially do so much more damage to a child!
The data identified is shocking, but what is more shocking is how it highlights how little research has actually been done in this field. Yet food corporations continue to release hundreds and thousands of batches of UPF’s into the food industry every single day.
How Can We Change
As Tulleken rightly claims in the documentary: ‘personal responsibility is not the way to tackle the obesity epidemic’. Of course everyone should take their own personal responsibility in terms of the food choices that they make, but the obesity epidemic has been on the rise for years, and people have always taken personal responsibility for their food choices, so what has changed? Somers states that ‘human nature hasn’t changed, what has changed is our food environment’, removing the element of personal responsibility and shifting it towards the government and the food industry.
The government has a responsibility to public health, a responsibility which is proving to be less and less of a priority when one considers that the NHS is consistently suffering from financial pressures. Furthermore; when a scientist who advises the government on obesity policy is making claims about the links between UPF’s and obesity, is the government even following scientific advice that is being given to them? And also the food industry itself, does it not realise the consequences of the mass produced, industrialised food they are making available to the public? When confronted about this, Rycroft simply explained that they have to be ‘guided by the government, who are guided by scientists’, essentially relinquishing all potential responsibility for their part in the obesity epidemic. It’s playing ‘ignorance is bliss’ – since they haven’t been told to change anything from the government, why should they change anything, despite the evidence being piled in front of them.
As frustrating as this may be to those of us who are aware of both the food industry and the government’s part in the production of UPF’s and their link to health problems, it only demonstrates that if we want change we must take action for ourselves. If we are to face Goliath, we need to target the driving force. Seeing as profit is the one thing that drives the food industry, the simplest way to make an impact would be to reduce the profit. Wherever you can, stop buying from the food industry giants, buy as little ultra processed food as possible. Changing consumer behaviour will force the food giants to change their approach.
In a new documentary ‘What Are We Feeding Our Kids’; Dr Chris van Tulleken investigates ‘ultra processed foods’ (UPF’S) and the dangers they pose to our bodies. After years of watching the number of obesity cases in the UK rise, a causal link has now been identified between UPF’s and human health. But why has this link not been made a public health priority?