If We Are What We Eat, We Don’t Know Who We Are

ULTRA-PROCESSED PEOPLE: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food, by Chris van Tulleken

Today, Sylvester Graham is best known for the cracker that bears his name. But in his heyday, Graham was an influential writer and lecturer on wholesome living. The term “mobbed” was apparently coined to describe what often happened when he spoke; having advocated for chastity in marriage and home cooking, he literally got chased out of town by husbands and bakers.

In an 1837 treatise, Graham warned of a dire threat: public bread. Commercial bakers, he worried, were using inferior flour, produced by farmers intent on squeezing profit from the soil. In addition to less nutritious wheat, bread-makers were also allegedly adding chemical agents and mixing in chalk, clay and plaster to increase weight and enhance color. Fake food was making people sick.

Nearly 200 years later, Chris van Tulleken sounds a similar alarm in “Ultra-Processed People.” A doctor, scientist and journalist who has worked on infectious diseases, the author writes that in addition to sickening us, ultra-processed food is destroying the planet, eradicating traditional cultures, shrinking our faces, possibly making us infertile and leaving us helpless against future microbial threats.

But what is ultraprocessed food? The term comes from a relatively recent classification scheme called NOVA. (Think of it as a competitor to the traditional food groups of fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy.) Created by researchers in Brazil, in the past decade NOVA has been widely adopted by NGOs, activists and researchers.

Food Group 1 is defined as “unprocessed or minimally processed foods,” things like meat, fruit, flour and pasta. Group 2 is “processed culinary ingredients” — oils, butter, sugar, honey and starches. Group 3 is “processed food”: ready-to-eat mixtures of the first two, processed for preservation, meaning beans, salted nuts, smoked meat (and, notably, “proper freshly made bread”). Group 4, finally, is “ultra-processed foods,” defined as formulations of ingredients, “mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.”

Translated into ordinary parlance, ultra-processed foods are what our parents called junk food: packaged snacks, soda, sugary cereals, energy drinks, candy bars. The book’s use of the scientific-sounding “UPF” moniker connotes something new and scary lurking on an ingredient list. It is easy to forget that what’s new here isn’t the food; it is the label or framework for describing it.

As van Tulleken explains it, in NOVA foods are grouped according to the purpose of the processing. UPF is processed mainly to maximize profit, with extremely low-cost ingredients and long shelf life. Manufacturers, says the author, also use “deceptive marketing, bogus court cases, secret lobbying, fraudulent research — all of which are vital for corporations to extract that money.” Because ultra-processed food’s defining characteristic is a rapacious profit motive, the book’s warnings about the bodily harm it causes often veer into attacks on corporate greed and late industrial capitalism.

Van Tulleken focuses mainly on the question of obesity, arguing that the main reason for the rapid increase in the condition, especially since the 1980’s, is “the correspondingly rapid increase in production and consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products..”

People have long worried about processed food causing weight gain and ill health. Even in the early 1900s, the Department of Agriculture was so concerned that it experimented on sequestered volunteers for weeks on end, feeding them nothing but food full of additives and preservatives to see what happened. (The results were mixed.)

The use of artificial additives, preservatives and coloring spiked dramatically after World War II, bringing on major federal legislation to regulate their use. Several of the book’s major examples of ultra-processed food, including synthetic butter, Coca-Cola and saccharin, date to the early 1900s, if not earlier. Coco Pops, which are a recurring motif in the book, were introduced nearly 50 years ago. Indeed, by the 1960s, foods that would today be classified as ultra-processed were everywhere.

Amid interviews with experts and discussions of scientific journals, van Tulleken narrates his personal experiment: “I would quit UPF for a month, then be weighed and measured in every possible way. Then, the next month, I would eat a diet where 80 percent of my calories came from UPF.” The personal dietary expedition is a standard trope in this genre, but it’s slightly unsettling to see a well-trained scientist adopt a research design from “Super Size Me.”

The unsurprising result is to make him gain weight and turn him into a near-zombie — constantly craving ultra-processed food, but taking no pleasure or satisfaction from eating, all while experiencing a vague awareness of pending physical and cosmic doom.

In van Tulleken’s telling, obesity is not caused by the usual suspects — sugar, salt, fat or lack of exercise — but by the synthetics, chemicals and stabilizers in ultra-processed foods. These short-circuit our evolved use of taste, smell, color and texture to guide dietary choice, tricking us into unhealthy and addictive eating choices and subsequent weight gain.

The reveal that eating a lot of junk food can, among other things, cause obesity may seem underwhelming. But because several decades of scientific research and government policy emphasized vitamins, nutrients and calories as markers of healthy food, we had a somewhat inadequate vocabulary for objecting to, say, highly processed frozen pizza that was produced to contain the same vitamins, nutrients and calories as one made fresh, from recognizable ingredients.

Van Tulleken may be right that it is the other stuff — synthetics, chemicals and stabilizers — used in the processing that causes overconsumption. But another critical difference between real and frozen pizza is cost: The fresh pizzeria pie discussed in the book costs 600 percent more than the frozen pizza. In 1900, food expenses were 43 percent of the typical American household’s budget. Today, we typically spend less than 10 percent, and the inexpensiveness of ultra-processed food is part of the reason.

Do people eat more when food is cheap, or do they eat more cheap food because the processing that makes it cheap tricks us into eating more? The answer to that question is murky and confounded in van Tulleken’s account, in which food that sickens us is part and parcel of processing-for-profit. Inferior ingredients are used to make food cheaper because lower cost increases consumption. Even if food is “designed to be overconsumed,” no one would eat it if it cost $100 a bag.

This book is a tour of how the science of processing has allowed companies to produce goods that are no longer even faint echoes of the real food of which they are copies, and of what the evidence shows about the biology and psychology of eating in today’s world. Van Tulleken is at his best when using his own scientific expertise to help readers through otherwise unnavigable science, data and history, explaining with precision what we are actually eating.

A hundred years ago, Graham worried that fake food would make us sick because it lacked vitamins, nutrients and calories — and was chased out of town. Van Tulleken’s worry is that ultra-processed food makes us sick despite providing the same elements. He speaks with the tenor of an iconoclast, but the book is less an alarm of a new threat than a newish alarm of an old one.

In van Tulleken’s experiment, the more he learned about ultra-processed foods, the less pleasure he took from eating them — yet he wanted more. Even when able to decode our food and understand what renders it unhealthy, we appear as doomed as ever to remain in conflict, not just with the food industry, but with ourselves.

Jacob E. Gersen is the Sidley Austin professor of law at Harvard Law School and director of the Food Law Lab.

ULTRA-PROCESSED PEOPLE: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food | By Chris van Tulleken | 376 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $30

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