Title: Ultra-Processed PEOPLE: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food | Author: Chris van Tulleken | 2023
To understand obesity, mainstream research focuses on avoiding carbohydrates, fats, and oils. In Ultra-Processed People, the author van Tulleken, argues that it’s the industrial production of food, which relies on ultra-processing, that’s mostly to blame.
What to Expect
Classifying food based on level of processing is a fairly new approach to nutritional science. With its origins in Brazil, the NOVA system classifies food based on level of processing. The book starts off with the history of NOVA and what separates it from previous approach on nutritional science. Van Tulleken looks to current research to make the case that ultra-processed food (UPF) causes obesity. The author also puts himself in a UPF diet for two weeks and shares his experience.
As always, this book review is not meant for you to skip reading the book. Rather, I hope to highlight parts that I find useful to look back on.
What is UPF?
Stabilizers, emulsifiers, gums, lecithin, glucose, a number of different oils…these are the hallmark of UPF. The definition…encompasses far more than the addition of additives, but remember the presence of those ingredients you don’t have in your kitchen is one indicator that food is UPF….other aspects of processing are equally, if not more, important than additives when it comes to effects on the human body.
The NOVA system emerged from research attempting to understand why obesity rates exploded between the mid 80s and the 2010s in Brazil. The mystery: during this time, purchases of what was considered healthy food increased, such as pasta, while purchase of unhealthy food such as oil and sugar declined. What researchers found, however, is that the purchase of UPF skyrocketed during this time. Biscuit consumption went up 400% for example.
The link between popular products causing problem was clear: they were all made from deconstructed, modified ingredients that were mixed with additives and frequently aggressively marketed.
To explain UPF, the author starts with ice cream. In order for ice cream to be sold nationwide and transported, it has to be “tolerant of warmth,” and “stop ice crystals forming.” Additionally, manufacturers mimic expensive ingredients such as milk and cream through “molecular replacement” to cut cost.
The main purpose of UPF is to make food cheaper, increase shelf-life, and it’s addictive. Think about it. Have you ever uncontrollably eaten apples? Most food we uncontrollably eat is UPF.
Why has the ultra-processing of food been overlooked by research?
Nutrition science focuses on food’s nutritional content to measure quality or whether or not food is good for us. Since industries strip food of nutrients to make UPF, using supplements seem make up for the loss of nutrients. However, the author claims that “beneficial nutrients only seem to help us when we consume them in context. Fish oil doesn’t benefit us, but only fish do.”
Currently, addressing obesity focuses on self-control and genetics. We tell people to control their sugar and carbohydrate intake and to exercise. But what this books shows us is that the problem is with our food supply. We can try to do all these things, but the main culprit is what we have available to eat. This shifts the onus from individuals and their willpower, to our environment and the food industry.
But why does changing the molecular component of food lead to obesity?
Humans should be able to regulate their weight, like most animals. But UPF messes with our ability to self-regulate. We’re sill in the process of understanding how this happens, but we know that:
an increasing number of studies are showing that every aspect of UPF disrupts our multi-million-year-old network of regulatory neurons and hormones.
Most people won’t binge on home cooked lentil soup, but potato chips from the store, most likely.
Here are theories on why UPF disrupts our ability to self-regulate:
- UPF is soft. “It may be that UPF is absorbed so quickly that it doesn’t reach the parts of the gut that send the ‘stop eating signal to the brain.”
- We eat UPF more quickly.
- UPF is dry, which means that it’s calorie dense (high amounts of calories relative to food weight).
- UPF focuses on “size and looks, such that flavor has been bred out of food…Part of the reason we are consuming so much is in search of missing taste and flavor, which also indicate missing nutrition.”
- Taste interactions: “By speedballing different tastes and sensations, UPF can force far more calories into us than we could otherwise handle, creating enormous neurological rewards that keep us coming back for more.”
Since UPF is not well regulated in the US, I make it a point to read ingredients and do my research when I come across something I’m unfamiliar. This narrows choices. Yes, ideally, we want more FDA involvement, but for now, I find that this gives me some peace of mind. It takes time, but avoiding UPF means cooking at home with fresh ingredients.
There are two areas of the book that resonated with me. First, the author’s explanation of how ultra-processed food, specifically Coke, uses taste. The author explains how Coke “smuggles” an unbelievable amount of sugar into our bodies. Without the mixture of various tastes, we probably can’t stand the sweetness of soda. But the fizz, served cold, and the formula tricks our body into consuming that much sugar.
I quit soda more than 20 years ago. I ordered soda at a cafeteria. The machine must have been broken since I got a flat, warm soda. And one sip made me quit. It tasted awful. If you want to quit soda, that’s one way to do it! Drink it for what it truly is.
Second, is the point about why we mostly binge-eat UPF. I try to practice mindfulness when eating and I find it harder with UPF. Even those marketed as “healthy” chips, for example, have the same uncontrollable effect. After reading the book, I’ll try to consciously eat slower. Hopefully in the future, resist buying these chips in the first place.
Tell me about your UPF experience: What is your experience with UPF? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may use your contribution in a future article or newsletter.