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We’re ‘Processivores.’ How Do We Rebuild Our Eating Habits?

Author Chris van Tulleken shows much of what we’re fed isn’t really food at all.

Crawford Kilian 30 Nov 2023The Tyee

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

In just the last decade, nutrition scientists have begun to question whether most of the food we buy and consume is really food at all. Their answer: No, it’s not, but it drives an economy that exploits us from the cradle to an early grave.

Dr. Chris van Tulleken, a British physician and science communicator, has written a lively, often funny and very alarming book about what used to be called junk food. Consumers have known for decades that it’s cheap, tasty and probably bad for you. Even so, it’s convenient and delivers a predictable hit of sweet, salty or savoury. (I well recall my ecstatic discovery of the first sugar-coated puffed-wheat cereal: Sugar Crisp, still going strong 75 years later).

Van Tulleken argues that most of the “whole food” we eat is processed, as it has been since we learned to cook meat hundreds of thousands of years ago. He calls us “processivores” — we’ve actually driven our own evolution thanks to processing food. The human gut is shorter than those of other primates, because cooked food doesn’t require as much digestion. Human jaws have shrunk until we’ve lost room for our wisdom teeth, because we don’t have to chew as long or as hard as our ancient ancestors did.

“But over the past 150 years,” van Tulleken says, “food has become... not food.”

He explains: “We’ve started eating substances constructed from novel molecules and using processes never previously encountered in our evolutionary history, substances that can’t really even be called ‘food.’ Our calories increasingly come from modified starches, from invert sugars, hydrolyzed protein isolates and seed oils that have been refined, bleached, deodorized, hydrogenated — and interesterified."

Hating ourselves, but it isn’t our fault

For most of the last 150 years, we’ve worried first about adulterants, like chalk or sawdust in bread, and then about a succession of food components: fat was bad for us, then sugar was bad for us, then it was salt and so on. Each component was supposedly to blame for obesity, diabetes and a host of other ills. Yet we went on eating foods full of sugar, salt and fat, and hating ourselves when we put on weight.

But it wasn’t our fault. That belonged to the companies making and selling ultra-processed food.

In 2010, van Tulleken tells us, a team of Brazilian food scientists led by Carlos Monteiro defined ultra-processed foods, or what they called UPFs, this way: “processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable (low-cost ingredients, long shelf life, emphatic branding) convenient (ready-to-consume) hyper-palatable products liable to displace freshly prepared dishes and meals.”

One of the other Brazilian scientists defined it more concisely to van Tulleken: “Most UPF is not food, Chris. It’s an industrially produced edible substance.”

“Since then,” van Tulleken says, “a vast body of data has emerged in support of the hypothesis that UPF damages the human body and increases rates of cancer, metabolic diseases and mental illness, that it damages human societies by displacing food cultures and driving inequality, poverty and early death, and that it damages the planet. The food system necessary for its production... is the leading cause of declining biodiversity and the second largest contributor to global emissions. UPF is thus causing a synergistic pandemic of climate changes, malnutrition and obesity.”

‘Butter’ made from coal

Van Tulleken provides a fascinating history of the development of UPF; in the 1930s, the Germans actually made “butter” from lignite, a soft brown coal. He also describes his toddler’s delighted discovery of Cocoa Puffs and his own experience on an eight-week diet of 80 per cent UPF: he gained six kilograms. Among other things, the experience made him realize what a hard time he’d been giving his twin brother, who had been overweight for years.

These are entertaining sections of the book, but the most important parts deal with the social, cultural and environmental impacts of UPF. He points out that “children in the U.K. and the U.S., countries with highest rates of UPF consumption, are not just heavier than their peers in nearly all other high-income western countries, they’re shorter too.”

And not just high-income countries. Van Tulleken describes the impact of a floating supermarket created by Nestlé — a major UPF producer — to serve Brazilian communities along the Amazon. Its cheaper products undercut the market for local whole foods, and a generation of kids began to put on weight and develop Type 2 diabetes — unknown to the communities before the floating supermarket’s arrival.

And speaking of the Amazon, van Tulleken notes that the deforestation of the Amazon region is largely to produce soybeans, a major component of feed for cattle and UPF for humans.

Cheaper than whole food

Canadians are very sensitive to food prices. According to a report from Dalhousie University, we spend 11 per cent of our income on food. But affluent Canadians spend only 5.2 per cent, while those with low incomes spend up to 23 per cent. So cheap UPF is what poorer people can afford.

And cheap food is what most consumers go for, especially when they’ve grown up on UPF like baby food, breakfast cereals, sweetened soft drinks, ice cream and fast food. After all, it’s cheap, with plenty of salt, sugar and artificial flavour that make you want to eat more.

Van Tulleken cites studies where people ate nutritionally equivalent meals of either whole foods or UPF; those eating UPF consumed 50 per cent more calories. “Obesity is caused by increased food intake, not inactivity,” he says, “and the best evidence... shows that, by food, we mean UPF.”

Obesity and diabetes

UPF really got going in the 1970s, and so did the modern obesity problem. In 1970, the Canadian obesity rate was about 9.7 per cent. It rose to 15 per cent in 1998, and according to Statista, in 2022, about 30 per cent of adult Canadians were obese, up from 26 per cent in 2015. Another 35 per cent were overweight throughout those seven years.

Meanwhile, Diabetes Canada estimates that in 2022, 11.7 million Canadians — 30 per cent of us — had Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, and the rate is growing at about three per cent annually. As of 2019, the cost of diabetes treatment in Canada was just under $30 billion.

The average cost of insulin in Canada is US$12 per unit; in the United States, it’s US$98.70, the highest in the world. (In Turkey it’s just US$2.64.) So the growth of UPF-driven diabetes has been a bonanza for pharmaceutical companies.

Diabetes rates have triggered production of drugs with semaglutide, which also turns out to be effective at weight reduction. Marketed as Ozempic for diabetics, it’s US$150 per month. Another injectable drug, which also contains semaglutide and is marketed as Wegovy for treating obesity, sells for a list price of US$1,349 per package — one month’s supply.

The drugs have scary side effects, including stomach problems, low blood sugar and acute pancreatitis. Even so, Novo Nordisk, the Danish company that makes both Wegovy and Ozempic, is having trouble meeting demand and is currently Europe’s most valuable company. No doubt other companies are developing competitive drugs.

A cradle-to-grave investment

So UPF damages the environment in its production, malnourishes and sickens its consumers and thereby creates demand for expensive and hazardous “cures” to remedy UPF-caused conditions. As well, it boosts demands for health services from dentistry to palliative care. From a corporate point of view, UPF is an ideal cradle-to-grave investment.

For people who would like to be less ultra-processed, reading this book will give them a new incentive to change. Their local supermarket will not look as welcoming as it once did. Finding the least damaging food will require reading and understanding content labels. (Van Tulleken says that if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one component not found in household kitchens, it’s UPF.)

And preparing meal after meal of whole foods will demand even more time and effort: no more “instant” oatmeal, just the kind that takes forever to cook. No more heat-and-eat meals. Even homemade pizza, instead of the kind delivered to your door, might have too many UPF components in the sausage and cheese. The whole-food equivalents would be too expensive, too time-consuming or simply unavailable for low-income families.

It’s said that if you can get something free on the internet, you’re the product. And if you can get cheap food at the supermarket or fast-food joint, you’re the commodity, paying to ruin your health and shorten your life.  [Tyee]

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