Hello family, goodbye sugar!

Hello family, goodbye sugar!

Ultra-Processed People – Book by Chris van Tulleken

Review by Claire McDonnell Liu

It’s not you, it’s the food. Technically speaking it’s not even food, it’s industrially made food-like substances.

Chris van Tulleken’s new book blazes a glaring spotlight on the realities of our modern family diet, and the devastation it is wreaking on our health, and the planet.

Complete with unflinching analysis of successive failures in leadership, Van Tulleken shares bold actions families and policy makers can take to create urgently needed change, now.

Van Tulleken, a Medical doctor, award-winning broadcaster, infectious disease expert, and the charismatic children’s TV  presenter from Operation Ouch, sets out how each of us have become subjects in a mass experiment that we didn’t consent to.

With scientific rigour yet highly digestible (last food pun I promise) narrative Chris provides a rare clarity to the fog around foods, nutrition policy and spiralling “lifestyle” related health pandemics. 

Peppered with food science and industry facts Chris shares insights from his own experiment of eating an 80% ultra-processed food (UPF) diet for one month. His sudden compulsion to drink Diet Coke 6 times a day, his growing anxiety, weight gain, constipation, mood changes, sleep disturbance, and most worrying, the stark changes to his brain pathways. Chris’ changed food habits also affected his young family, as they fell into eating more UPF alongside him, so their waistlines also expanded as well as their desire for the products. 

An interesting aspect of Chris’ food self-experiment and investigations was the discovery that wide ranging foods are made from a fairly generic paste. Modified carbohydrates (refined flours with sugar syrups), industrial fats (palm and seed oils), added powdered protein (e.g. whey), glued together with emulsifiers, such as soy lecithin. This bland base paste is re-assembled into food like shapes and textures, then heavily salted, sweetened, coloured and flavoured, going on to be baked, puffed, fried or coated. The upshot of this is that Chris’ new favourite chocolate chip bar had the similar base paste as many cereals, biscuits, and snacks, as well as his meal of Turkey Twizzlers. As his food knowledge increased, so did his revulsion for the foods that he was eating, yet he felt compelled to eat and drink the products in increasing amounts, supporting the growing evidence that these foods are highly addictive in nature.

Although Chris ate and drank foods that would be easily recognised as unhealthy junk foods, he is clear that many everyday family foods are also harmful UPFs. Our morning cereal, toast and spread; the children’s packed lunch yoghurt, bar, cheese, and wrap; and the simple weekday pasta sauce and garlic bread dinner. In fact, almost all breakfast cereal products are UPFs, they’re a nutritional disaster, that many families think of as a fairly healthy start to the day. Chris asserts that foods with health claims, for example high fibre, added vitamins, or probiotic, are almost certainly highly processed foods.

Modern Foods

Ultra-Processed Food (UPF) has a long, formal scientific definition, but as a rule if it’s packaged, has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen, is made using processes that you would not be able to replicate at home – then it’s UPF.

The dominant foods available in our societies are long-life, highly refined, chemically enhanced, additive ladened, completely unavoidable and irresistibly tasty. These complex ‘foods’ made with substances and processes unfamiliar to the the human body are responsible for making us chronically sick, and for millions of deaths each year.

A huge body of evidence now exposes the harm we face from regularly eating UPFs. Linked to childhood obesity, depression, anxiety, metabolic disease, inflammation, heart disease, asthma, infertility, cardiovascular disease, dementia, greater risk of developing and of dying from cancer, most notably ovarian and breast cancers.

Not only does this food type stuff destroy our health but the global production, movement, and disposal of processed foods is responsible for catastrophic environmental damage. Eating more highly processed foods cannot possibly be the environmental fix that it is frequently made out to be.

Chris freely admits to eating UFP irregularly, along with most families everywhere. Although he is clear that some families are much more at risk than others, those living in poverty are much more times likely to rely on UPFs for a myriad of complex social and economic reasons.

Chris reframes the food, weight, health conversation away from individual blame with empathy.  This is not a matter of willpower. Individuals are pawns to powerful commercial drivers, longterm government inaction and a smothering food environment – from shops, to restaurants, schools, hospitals, adverts on our streets, in our living rooms and on our children’s devices.

A “Third Age of Food”

Van Tulleken asserts that policy makers must separate from the food industry. Working in partnership with those responsible for the problems to fix the problem is a blindingly obvious flaw in the system, and a key driver of the health epidemics we face.

Offering a pragmatic focus for our deepening food and health abyss, Chris’ concept is of a “third age of food”. Leaning into the tenets of societal behaviour change, Chris suggests that access and information are key. Food education and improved access to minimally processed foods to help us to navigate our new world. One defined by a formidable abundance of junk food like substances masquerading as our everyday foods.


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