Guest Post: Fake Food vs Farm Fresh Food
Today Small Farm Future brings you that rarity on this site, a guest post. In this instance it’s a review of Chris Van Tulleken’s book Ultra-Processed People from Christine Dann, who will be familiar to regular readers here from her comments (or perhaps from her books, like food@home).
Before I hand over to Christine, and talking both of books and of friends of this website, a shoutout to Brian Miller, whose excellent book Kayaking With Lambs: Notes from an East Tennessee Farmer is about to hit the shops (I read an advanced copy and can thoroughly recommend it). My best wishes to Brian as he sends his words out into the world.
Another interesting book just out is Peter and Miriam Wohlleben’s Our Little Farm, which I also read in advanced copy. Definitely of interest on the practical gardening/homesteading front – hopefully I’ll find some time to discuss it on here at some point, after I’ve written some posts about my own recent book.
Anyway, enough about all these other books – over to Christine, and Chris Van Tulleken.
Fake Fod versus Farm-Fresh Food
A review of Ultra-Processed People
by Chris Van Tulleken, Cornerstone Press, 2023
“Most UPF is not food, Chris”, the Brazilian scientist researching UPF [Ultra-Processed Foods] kept telling Dr Chris van Tulleken when he used the word in their conversations about UPF. In Fernanda Rauber’s opinion, it should be called “…an industrially produced edible substance”. (van Tulleken, 2023, p. 155)
Van Tulleken credits Rauber with being the expert who made the deepest impression on his thinking about UPF (or IPES – Industrially Produced Edible Substances – now my preferred term for these pseudo-foods as it covers how they are produced better than alternative terms like studge, gloop, or fod). She told him that the plastic packaging of UPF, when heated, decreases fertility in those who eat the heated industrially produced edible substances. (Warm IPES, anyone?) Also how the preservatives and emulsifiers in UPF disrupt the gut microbiome, which is further damaged by the lack of fibre in UPF. Then there are the harms caused by the high levels of fat, sugar and salt in UPF, which are not found in unprocessed or minimally-processed foods, like fresh vegetables or rolled oats.
What exactly are UPFs? Van Tulleken makes use of what is now the now standard NOVA categorisation, developed by the Brazilian research team of which Rauber is a member. It ranks foods into four groups by the level of processing involved, from unprocessed (think raw apple or carrot), through minimally and partially processed to ultra-processed (think packaged breakfast cereals or supermarket ready-meals containing multiple ingredients, many of them synthetic). Four chapters of Ultra-Processed People are devoted to exploring the differences between UPF and unprocessed or minimally-processed foods. Ultra-processing means that UPF can damage health in ways that farm-fresh food could never do. They include the mechanical processing which is essential to UPF, which destroys fibre while releasing sugar; the addition of synthetic flavourings and colourings which have not been adequately tested for safety, and also mislead consumers into thinking that the UPF is a real food; the nutrient deficiencies (and weight gain) due to over-eating UPF in the hope of finding the nutrients it lacks; the negative impacts of emulsifiers on human and environmental health; and the use of artificial sweeteners which are implicated in causing a range of health problems.
These could also include cancers occurring at younger ages. Since Ultra-Processed People was published, a new study which collated data from the G20 group of industrialised countries found that between 1990 and 2019 cancer rates increased by 22% in the age group 25-29. In the next age group, 30-34, cancer rates are at the highest level ever. In a 25 July article headed Why is cancer striking earlier? Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, refers to the evidence that UPFs are damaging bodies, and especially the gut microbiome, and why the substantial increase in UPF consumption in the three decades between 1990 and 2019 is a likely reason for the rise in early cancers.
Then there is the way UPF makes you feel, day by day. In what seems to be becoming a bit of a trend in British doctors with a possibly masochistic approach to research subjecting themselves (and/or those close to them) to different diets (check out Michael Mosley and Tim Spector) van Tulleken spent a month eating only UPF. When he did this at home, his three year old daughter insisted on having some too. He notes the negative effects it had on them both – even as they couldn’t stop eating it. (Or in his case, drinking six cans of Diet Coke per day!) At the end of his month’s experiment, van Tulleken was feeling rubbish. He had put on 6 kg in weight, was not sleeping well (with lots more nightmares), was so constipated he developed an anal fissure, and described himself as “ aching, exhausted, miserable and angry”. Even worse, his inflammation markers were up, his appetite hormones were “totally deranged”, and his brain scan showed that connections for desiring UPF had strengthened. (pp. 157; 160-161)
This last effect is the subject of a whole chapter (‘How UPF hacks our brains’) which includes a discussion of the differences between substance and behavioural addictions, and whether UPF is like gambling, a behavioural addiction which gives intermittent rewards, or (like alcohol) a substance addiction (it has a physical effect). Van Tulleken says the body of evidence now supports the substance view. Given the wide range of illnesses linked to regular UPF consumption (listed on p. 62) this is a big worry.
Yet despite ample scientific evidence of its dangers, UPF consumption is increasing world-wide. Van Tulleken documents the ways in which the current industrial food system is optimised to increase the number and variety of UPF foods and their consumers, with billions of dollars spent on marketing IPES. Young consumers are the prime target for seductive forms of marketing designed to hack their brains as surely as the IPES inside the pretty packaging. Van Tulleken gives an especially horrific example of a Nestlé boat taking UPF into the far reaches of Amazonia and getting young people hooked there. But the UK is even worse than Brazil when it comes to UPF consumption. Van Tulleken talks to teenagers in Leicester who have no youth clubs or other healthy community places to gather in any more, and hang out in junk food restaurants eating and drinking UPF instead. Those same young people have been fed lunches high in UPF at school, and meals high in UPF at or from home, meaning that British youngsters now have the highest consumption of UPF in Europe – around 65% of their diet.
What would it take to change this system, and what would it look like?
“We could at least imagine a system arranged around agro-ecological farming and the consumption of a diverse range of fresh and minimally processed whole foods” van Tulleken says. “Such a system would promote biodiversity and has the capacity to produce enough healthy food for a growing population on a lower land footprint than today with massive climate benefits.” (p. 265)
That’s starting to sound like a small farm future we could all benefit from. But now comes the but…
“But such a system wouldn’t favour the monocultures required for UPF that do so much damage ….. UPF requires the current destructive way of farming and is the only possible output of this system.” (p. 265)
Van Tulleken is adamant that the system needs changing, to preserve and enhance the health of humans and everything else living on Earth. He also presents depressing evidence as to why and how it remains so powerful, with billions and billions of dollars going towards developing and marketing new forms of UPF. He contrasts this with the small returns currently available to farmers producing whole foods in sustainable ways to serve local markets, and the lack of access to such foods for the majority of city dwellers on low incomes. So he is not hopeful about where things are headed – and that’s without considering the very latest iteration in UPF. These are the big tech investment start-ups growing fake meat and veg from cells, bacteria, algae – whatever takes your fancy – in factories. The boosters of these novel forms of IPES claim they will ‘spare’ land from farming and animals from suffering while also providing human nutrition. Too good to be true? Alas, yes. Given van Tulleken’s descriptions of how current UPFs are produced, one can be pretty sure that this form of factory-made IPES will have the same sorts of anti-nutritional additives required to make them pass for food which are found in existing UPFs. If that is the case then they will cause the same health problems, without having any impact at all on the industrial agriculture mono-cultures which currently trash the land, and are cruel to animals, in order to keep the highly profitable UPF mills churning out cheap industrially produced edible substances.
There is a lot more one can learn from reading Ultra-Processed People. (I found the chapter on Nazi support for making ‘butter’ from coal during World War Two a real eye-opener – and sadly not a one-off historical footnote, but one which has set a template for subsequent UPF production.) Van Tulleken’s explanations of the scientific findings on physiological processes, good nutrition, and the impacts of UPF on mind and body are clear and engaging. Plus he is not just another nutrition geek. He also covers the detrimental social and environmental effects of UPF, and the corporate profit-seeking structures which drive them. This makes the book a valuable reference for anyone concerned about improving the food system from farm to fork for society (and Earth) as whole, rather than just improving one’s personal diet. If one has that particular option – and here I felt rather let down by van Tulleken’s last chapter, in which he says that he wouldn’t tell anyone else not to eat UPF.
While it is true that nagging people about their diets (as he nagged his brother) doesn’t work, if my doctor knew I was eating poison and did not at least advise that I ate real food instead, I would question their competence. Given how hard it currently is for many urban dwellers to access good food, I can see why van Tulleken is loath to engage in what could appear to be ‘social nagging’, which can have no effect. Plus his expertise is scientific and medical, not social and political. Yet it is changes in the social and political sphere which have led to the rise of UPF and the loss of real food, and while the alternatives are currently no match for Big Fod, it is those alternatives – the sustainable small farms, the fresh food markets, the whole food stores and the like – which need to be celebrated and strengthened by every means possible. So that when a doctor tells a patient that their Type 2 diabetes is likely caused by over-consumption of UPF, and advises them to switch to real food, this is a genuine option for every patient. As it should be a genuine option for everyone.
No ifs, no buts, and please – more small farms producing real food for everyone, and no more IPES!