You’ll never look at a loaf of bread the same way again

April 11, 2024
book cover, loaf of processed bread
The book includes stories of the collusion between government bodies and the food industry under the pretense of fighting obesity and destruction of the environment. Graphic: Green Left

Ultra-Processed People
By Chris van Tulleken
Cornerstone Press 2023

Ultra-Processed People, by Chris van Tulleken is a frightening book about the industrialised chemicals and processed components that make up the ultra-processed food (UPF) we buy in supermarkets.

UPF is causing a global epidemic of obesity, type II diabetes, depression and many other early-onset diseases. Worse still, UPF causes mass obesity in children in developed and undeveloped countries.

Food manufacturing industries use the cheapest ingredients then add sugar, salt and other chemicals to make their products addictive. UPF is constructed from the cheapest version of these essential molecules, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. UPF is why many of us are overweight and depressed into the bargain.

UPF is hard to define. It is packaged snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles and so-called “ready meals”. Researchers also include foods such as packaged baked goods, ice-cream, sugary cereal, chips, lollies and biscuits. One researcher said, “It’s not food. It’s an industrially produced edible substance.”

Disturbingly, there is little or no government regulation over UPFs.

Sugars, stabilisers, emulsifiers

A typical supermarket-bought multigrain bread loaf contains wheat flour, water and seed mix (13%), wheat protein, yeast, salt, soya flour, malted barley flour, granulated sugar, barley flour, preservatives (E282 calcium propionate), emulsifier E472e (mono- and di-acetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides of fatty acids), caramelised sugar, barley fibre and a flour treatment agent called ascorbic acid. The manufacturers start with low-protein flour and add separate wheat protein later, as it saves on time and cost.

Symbolising the problem, van Tulleken’s book has an embossed picture of a loaf of bread in its plastic wrapping and tie on the cover.

I was horrified to later read that the same manufacturers make a product van Tulleken calls “sour-faux”, with up to 15 ingredients, including palm oil and commercial yeast. Sourdough bread should just have four ingredients: flour, wild yeast, salt and water.

For those who enjoy a morning cup of coffee with a snack, van Tulleken investigates the ingredients in a British “Carb Killa Chocolate Chip Salted Caramel Bar”.

It’s constructed from modified carbohydrates, maltitol (a modified sugar made from a modified starch, which is sweeter than table sugar), protein isolates from milk and beef, calcium caseinate, whey protein isolate, hydrolysed beef gelatine and industrially processed palm fat, all bound together with emulsifiers. Exposure to low doses of common food emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, has been shown to induce inflammation by disrupting intestinal microbiota.

One British store-bought pistachio ice cream studied in the book contains fresh milk, sugar, pistachio paste, soy protein, soy lecithin, coconut oil, sunflower oil, chlorophyll, natural flavours (including lemon), dextrose, fresh double cream, glucose, skim milk powder, stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), emulsifier (mono and di-diglycerides of fatty acids) and Maldon sea salt.

Stabilisers, emulsifiers, gums, lecithin, glucose and oils are all the hallmarks of UPF.

Because ice cream is so cold in the freezer, it has no scent when the wrapper is ripped open to encourage consumption. So companies will add a caramel scent in the ribbing of the wrapper. You might recognise the names of some of the gums listed on ice-cream wrappers: guar gum, locust bean gum, alginate, carrageenan and xanthan gum. The latter comes from a slime that bacteria produce to be able to cling to surfaces. This may put you off ever eating ice-cream again.

The individual ingredients of UPF are harmful, but it is in combination that they do the most harm.

The oils are refined, bleached, deodorised, hydrogenated and inter-esterified (a chemical process). The protein may be hydrolysed and the starch modified. Combined with additives, they are assembled using moulding, extrusion and pressure changes. Ingredient lists from pizzas to snacks all seem the same.

Another feature of UPF is that it is soft; there is no fibre, each mouthful is a “slick of wet, starchy glob”. The softness is due to the method of construction. Industrially modified plants and mechanically recovered meats are pulverised, ground, milled and extruded, until all fibrous texture is destroyed. This is so the remainder can be reassembled into dinosaurs for kids or crisps for adults.

Humans have a natural body composition that is fattier than most land mammals. Elephants carry around 8.5% body fat, apes have less than 10%, but women have about 21% body fat and men have 14%. Obesity was rare for human populations living before 1879, states van Tulleken, even if food was abundant.

Hormones and hunger

A hormone, leptin, produced in the fat tissue and detected in the hypothalamus in the brain is involved in long-term control of weight. Before we start to eat, the stomach secretes a hormone called ghrelin which activates the hypothalamus to tell us to start eating. However, a system for short-term control of weight involves the liver, pancreas, stomach, small and large intestine, the microbiome and fat tissue, as all detect sugars, fat and protein. They send and receive signals to the brain after eating. It is this complex, autonomous, signaling system that is bypassed when eating UPF.

UPF is affecting our ability to self-regulate our body weight, our network of hormones and neurons that has evolved over 300 million years from the first eating organism, Dickinsonia costata.

It is not clear how UPF avoids these complex feed-back mechanisms. Eating is far less of a choice than it appears. Van Tulleken has chapters on exactly why obesity is not due to sugar, why is it not due to lack of exercise, and why it is not due to poor will-power.

The neuroscience is persuasive. Evidence from brain-scans show that energy-dense, hyperpalatable, ultraprocessed foods can stimulate changes in the same brain circuits affected by addictive drugs. Evidence from brain MRIs show that the appetite hormones are totally deranged. What is happening to children’s brains due to consumption of UPF in terms of social behavior and IQ is not known.

We may be eating more food to compensate for becoming increasingly deficient in micronutrients. Ultraprocessing reduces micronutrients to the point that modern diets lead to malnutrition, even as they cause obesity. Micronutrients are more efficient and beneficial when embedded in food, rather than supplements. Phytochemicals, Vitamin E or A or other fat-soluble vitamins, haem iron or methyl folate are all more available for absorption in their natural form.

UPFs make up as much as 60% of the calories of the average diet in Britain and the United States. Dr Melissa Lane and her colleagues published an article on UPFs in the Australian diet, which they estimated to be about 40% (ABC interview March 1).

UPF is almost universally cheaper, quicker and lasts longer (due to the addition of preservatives) than food prepared at home from basic ingredients. It is so ubiquitous, resulting in such high consumption due to our busy life styles.

Depression, diabetes, obesity

Two studies carried out in Mediterranean countries reported that higher intakes of UPF were associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms and depression over 5 and 10 years of follow-up, respectively. Another report found increased depression in a study of public servants in London over 11 years.

Brazilian nutritionist Carlos Monteiro was the first to sound the alarm about UPFs in 1977, when he noticed that Brazilians appeared to be buying less sugar, yet obesity and Type II diabetes were going up.

Monteiro went on to develop the NOVA system, where food is divided into four groups. Group 1 is unprocessed or minimally processed food found in nature (i.e. meat, fruit and vegetables, flour and pasta). Group 2 is processed cooking ingredients, traditional food, such as oils, lard, butter, sugar, salt, vinegar, honey and starches. Group 3 is processed food, ready-made mixtures of groups 1 and 2, such as tins of beans, nuts, smoked meat, canned fish, fruit in syrup and freshly made bread. Group 4 is the “ultra-processed food”, defined as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology”.

A well-known Canadian nutrition scientist, Kevin Hall, from the US National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, put Monteiro’s theory to the test. The paper was published in the respected journal Cell Metabolism (2019, V30, p67). He did indeed find that UPF caused excess calorie intake and weight gain in a randomised, controlled trial with no limits on food intake by the participants.

The solution to UPFs cannot be left up to the food industry. It is up to government in collaboration with the medical profession, public health scientists, nutritionists and nurses, to rid our cupboards of UPF.

Lane says, as a first step, UPF dense foods must be removed from school and hospitals and we should aim is for an overall reduction of UPF food in the diet to less than 10% of energy intake. However, it will cost households more in time and money to replace cheaper and easier UPFs with better options.

The book contains more horror stories of the collusion between government bodies and the food industry under the pretense of fighting obesity and destruction of the environment.

It is an easy read if you can withstand knowing what you are really eating. We are Ultra Processed People in more ways than food.

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