Chris van Tulleken (2023)

Food versus food-shaped industrial products.

Ultra-processed food (UPF) is pervasive in modern diets, and with it comes a litany of actual, conjectured, and supposed harms. UPF itself is a strange beast, taking food crops and turning them into pure components that can then be re-mixed to construct new products. This has some perverse consequences, such as flavours being removed from purified and “modified” oils and starches in order to make them more broadly usable – and then having those same flavours re-introduced later in the process, again in “modified” form. That sounds insane – how can it be cheaper than using the original oil? – but in fact it makes perfet commercial sense for companies wanting fungible raw materials to produce unvarying, known-ahead-of-time tastes and textures.

The resulting products (I’m now reluctant to call them foods), being created in labs, can be re-worked in pursuit of particular commercial goals, for example by adding powdered soya when looking to create a “high-protein” snack. They can also be re-engineered to be far more pleasurable and addictive for consumers, for example by hacking the body’s responses to food (which are themselves coming to be understood as far more subtle and complicated than we used to think).

van Tulleken has a science background, and it shows in the writing: most of the claims are carefully framed and evidenced. His background also saves him from falling for the industry’s faux-refutations about there not being definitive causal links to specific harms: randomised controlled trials aren’t the “scientific gold standard” in situations where they’re impossible to conduct in the real world, and epidemiological evidence coupled with some knowledge of the possible harm pathways can provide sufficient evidence. Having said that, he does sometimes deviate from this careful path, and there are a few instances of words like “may” and “could” doing a lot of heavy lifting.

One of the most powerful elements of the book is that it simultaneously doesn’t preach or prescribe, but does offer suggestions for ways forward. UPF is very difficult to precisely define, and is therefore difficult to legislate for or avoid. Does a single stabiliser in a product render it UPF? – because if so literally anything in a packet would be included. van Tulleken also takes aim at some of the wider social drivers of UPF, notably its cheapness and ease of preparation compared to “real” food, reinforcing poor diet as a consequence of poverty. He also suggests some interesting policy options, while also taking aim at a policy infrastructure that’s heavily co-opted by the UPF industry. Regulators and the food industry are not partners and have goals that are mutually irreconcilable within the current framework of pre-eminent shareholder value.

5/5. Finished Thursday 4 July, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)