How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket

It’s cheap, attractive and convenient, and we eat it every day – it’s difficult not to. But is ultra-processed food making us ill and driving the global obesity crisis?

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Thu 13 Feb 2020  The Guardian

Nearly three decades ago, when I was an overweight teenager, I sometimes ate six pieces of sliced white toast in a row, each one slathered in butter or jam. I remember the spongy texture of the bread as I took it from its plastic bag. No matter how much of this supermarket toast I ate, I hardly felt sated. It was like eating without really eating. Other days, I would buy a box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or a tube of Pringles: sour cream and onion flavour stackable snack chips, which were an exciting novelty at the time, having only arrived in the UK in 1991. Although the carton was big enough to feed a crowd, I could demolish most of it by myself in a sitting. Each chip, with its salty and powdery sour cream coating, sent me back for another one. I loved the way the chips – curved like roof tiles – would dissolve slightly on my tongue.

Back in the 90s, there was no word to cover all the items I used to binge on. Some of the things I over-ate – crisps or chocolate or fast-food burgers – could be classified as junk food, but others, such as bread and cereal, were more like household staples. These various foods seemed to have nothing in common except for the fact that I found them very easy to eat a lot of, especially when sad. As I ate my Pringles and my white bread, I felt like a failure for not being able to stop. I had no idea that there would one day be a technical explanation for why I found them so hard to resist. The word is “ultra-processed” and it refers to foods that tend to be low in essential nutrients, high in sugar, oil and salt and liable to be overconsumed.

Which foods qualify as ultra-processed? It’s almost easier to say which are not. I got a cup of coffee the other day at a train station cafe and the only snacks for sale that were not ultra-processed were a banana and a packet of nuts. The other options were: a panini made from ultra-processed bread, flavoured crisps, chocolate bars, long-life muffins and sweet wafer biscuits – all ultra-processed.

What characterises ultra-processed foods is that they are so altered that it can be hard to recognise the underlying ingredients. These are concoctions of concoctions, engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, flours, whey proteins and sugars, which are then whipped up into something more appetising with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers.

Ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed – and on sale in supermarkets everywhere. The foods themselves may be familiar, yet the term “ultra-processed” is less so. None of the friends I spoke with while writing this piece could recall ever having heard it in daily conversation. But everyone had a pretty good hunch what it meant. One recognised the concept as described by the US food writer Michael Pollan – “edible foodlike substances”.

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