Alarming discoveries that turned CHRIS VAN TULLEKEN off processed meals

Ultra-processed meals (or UPFs) make up a surprising 60 per cent of the typical weight-reduction plan within the UK – and growing proof hyperlinks their excessive consumption with the rise in weight problems, kind 2 diabetes and different ailments. 

Here, within the second a part of our serialisation of his bestselling e-book Ultra-Processed People, TV physician Chris van Tulleken warns of the hidden risks behind meals which we discover so tasty.

On a freakishly heat autumn day, I headed with my household to a North London park and acquired our three-year-old daughter Lyra a deal with. 

It was a large scoop of pistachio ice cream – from which her one-year-old sister, Sasha, managed to scrounge a couple of licks. But it did not distract Lyra for lengthy: recognizing two buddies, she handed me her tub and ran off to play on the swings.

Her ice cream, I observed, was a glistening inexperienced ball of pistachio. It took a second to daybreak on me that this was most peculiar. How was it nonetheless a ball? The solar was blazing and the skin of the bathtub was heat to the contact. Something had clearly stopped the ice-cream from melting.

Back house, I regarded up the substances on-line. Some had been what you’d count on: contemporary milk and double cream, sugar, salt, a tiny sprint of pistachios. 

Others, nonetheless, rang alarm bells: soy protein, soy lecithin, coconut oil, sunflower oil, chlorophyll, glucose, dextrose, stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), emulsifier (mono and fatty acids).

These are all hallmarks of ultra-processed meals (UPF). Far from shopping for my little daughter a correct ice cream, I’d given her what one scientist later memorably described to me as ‘an industrially produced edible substance’. 

'Far from buying my little daughter a proper ice cream, I'd given her what one scientist later memorably described to me as 'an industrially produced edible substance' (stock image)

‘Far from shopping for my little daughter a correct ice cream, I’d given her what one scientist later memorably described to me as ‘an industrially produced edible substance’ (inventory picture)

Did it matter? After all, no one has but dropped useless instantly after consuming an ultra-processed dessert. The reply, I’m afraid, is that it issues a fantastic deal.

There’s now an enormous quantity of fastidiously collected and analysed information that exposes the inherent risks in consuming complicated mixtures of gear that people have by no means encountered earlier than.

These substances cannot even actually be known as ‘meals’. Increasingly, the energy we eat come from modified starches, from invert sugars, hydrolysed protein isolates and seed oils which have been refined, bleached, deodorised and hydrogenated.

Added to those are artificial emulsifiers, low-calorie sweeteners, stabilising gums, humectants [moisturising agents], flavour compounds, dyes, color stabilisers, carbonating brokers, firming brokers and bulking – and anti-bulking – brokers.

What this implies is that all the things from rooster nuggets to ice cream might be constructed from the identical base liquids and powders. 

And keep in mind that UPF is just not the identical as junk meals (although all junk meals is UPF). It’s way more insidious.

Ultra-processed food makes up an incredible 60 per cent of the average diet in the UK

Ultra-processed meals makes up an unimaginable 60 per cent of the typical weight-reduction plan within the UK

Ultra-processed meals makes up an unimaginable 60 per cent of the typical weight-reduction plan within the UK. For one in 5 Britons, it is 80 per cent of what they eat. 

Many kids, together with my very own, get most of their energy from these substances. In brief, UPF has develop into our nationwide weight-reduction plan. It’s now the primary stuff from which we assemble our our bodies.

Yet, since 2010, an unlimited physique of information has emerged which signifies that UPF will increase charges of most cancers, metabolic illness, dementia and psychological sickness. 

We additionally know that it damages our intestine lining and the all-important microbiome – the micro organism that reside in our intestines.

Our fee of consumption is inflicting a pandemic of malnutrition – attributable to the shortage of vitamins in UPF – and weight problems. Studies counsel it is stunted the expansion of kids.

Five-year-olds within the UK do not simply have among the highest charges of weight problems in Europe, they’re additionally among the many shortest by a major quantity – greater than 5cm shorter than Danish and Dutch kids of the identical age, as an example.

'In the UK, we eat more ready meals than any other European country. And almost 90 per cent of us eat them regularly'

‘In the UK, we eat extra prepared meals than another European nation. And virtually 90 per cent of us eat them repeatedly’

Without volunteering for it, we have develop into members in an unlimited meals experiment. New substances – the cheaper, the higher – are being examined on all of us on a regular basis.

Can an artificial emulsifier be used as an alternative of an egg? Can an industrially altered seed oil exchange a dairy fats? Can a little bit of ethyl methylphenylglycidate be chucked in as an alternative of a strawberry? By shopping for UPF, we’re driving its evolution.

At the identical time – with out most of us being conscious of it – we’re taking big dangers with our well being.

The impression on kids is a selected concern. Typically, 60 per cent of the meals they eat is UPF, and so they’re consuming the stuff whereas their brains are nonetheless creating.

Will their IQ be affected? We merely haven’t any manner of realizing.

I began finding out the impression of UPF at University College London Hospital, the place I do medical analysis. 

Along with different colleagues, I used to be eager to seek out out extra. That’s why I agreed to develop into the primary affected person in a preliminary examine. 

The plan was to get information from my expertise that will assist us win funding for a a lot bigger examine (which we’re now endeavor).

The concept was easy: I’d give up all ultra-processed meals for a month. Then, the next month, I’d eat a weight-reduction plan the place 80 per cent of my energy got here from UPF – identical to a fifth of UK residents.

But, initially, I saved a meals diary of a typical week. That was the primary shock: it turned out that I used to be typically getting about 30 per cent of my energy from UPF.

After years of writing and broadcasting about meals, I’d imagined I had a fairly affordable weight-reduction plan. It regarded one thing like this: black espresso for breakfast, a sandwich and crisps for lunch and a reasonably wholesome home-cooked dinner (rooster, rice and broccoli is a staple), adopted by a grocery store dessert.

Every few nights, reasonably than cooking the primary course, we would have a UPF microwave lasagne or a UPF pizza. 

I’d have a takeaway about as soon as per week, often UPF because of liberal use of modified starches and flavour enhancers.

Anyway, after I began on my first month with none UPF, I discovered it surprisingly exhausting. Suddenly I had a longing for these microwave meals, grocery store desserts and takeaways.

It was additionally tough to seek out something non-UPF to purchase for lunch.

Most meals from the hospital canteen and close by outlets had been dominated out. I could not purchase a sandwich due to the emulsifiers within the bread and the maltodextrin and preservatives within the spreads.

So I needed to make my very own sandwiches – primarily cheese, butter and correct sourdough bread from a neighborhood bakery. 

I could not even add my favorite Hellmann’s mayonnaise (rapeseed oil, water, pasteurised egg & egg yolk, spirit vinegar, salt, sugar, flavourings, lemon juice focus, calcium disodium EDTA, paprika extract). 

My belt received looser, positive, however I began wanting ahead to my UPF weight-reduction plan.

I even started obsessing over stuff I did not usually take into consideration, reminiscent of takeaways from the McDonald’s and KFC throughout the street from the hospital.

Finally the nice day arrived after I launched into the type of ultra-processed weight-reduction plan that is completely regular for one in 5 folks within the UK.

I did not attempt to force-feed myself – this wasn’t Super Size Me. I simply ate UPF at any time when I felt prefer it. At the identical time, I used to be persevering with my analysis by chatting with the world’s main consultants on meals, diet, consuming and ultra-processing.

Remember my daughter’s pistachio ice cream? Still questioning why it had so many substances, and was so reluctant to soften, I contacted a food-industry insider.

Paul Hart labored for 20 years at Unilever, as a biochemist after which as a designer of meals manufacturing techniques. There’s virtually nothing he would not learn about UPF or the {industry} that makes it.

By the time I met him – appropriately sufficient, at a KFC outlet – I’d had a take a look at the ice lotions on sale at my native Tesco.

Almost all, I famous, contained xanthan gum, guar gum, emulsifiers and glycerine. 

Could he clarify why? ‘We can use ice cream for example to clarify almost all the things about UPF,’ he instructed me. ‘It’s all about value and prices – these substances lower your expenses.’

This is essential to British shoppers. In 2017, earlier than the present cost-of-living disaster, we had been spending simply 8 per cent of our family price range on meals, lower than virtually anyplace else on the earth. 

Germany, Norway, France and Italy, as an example, spend 11 to 14 per cent of their price range on meals.

You do not get a lot entire meals, reminiscent of meat and broccoli, for eight per cent of your price range. UPF, nonetheless, is kind of a bit cheaper.

That’s one of many the reason why, other than the US, we eat extra of the stuff than another nation.

Imagine you are within the poorest half of all UK households. If you needed to stick to our nationwide healthy-eating pointers, you’d have to spend virtually 30 per cent of your disposable earnings.

But again to ice cream. How, I requested Paul, do UPF substances cease it shortly melting right into a puddle? First, he defined, they make the ice cream tolerant of heat. The gums, glycerine and emulsifiers cease ice crystals forming, which suggests it may be simply transported with out the necessity for very low temperatures always.

Contrast that with what I’d name actual ice cream. Cream o’ Galloway vanilla ice cream seems to be constructed from the identical substances that you simply would possibly use at house: milk, cream, sugar, skimmed milk powder, egg yolk, vanilla essence. 

That’s nice, however the result’s that the product cannot be bought nationwide. Real ice cream is much less tolerant of all that transporting round.

The substances utilized in Cream o’ Galloway vanilla ice cream are additionally mirrored within the value: £3.60 for 500ml. That’s about 14 instances dearer than, for instance, Ms Molly’s Vanilla, unique to Tesco, which is £1 for 2 litres. 

Unsurprisingly, Ms Molly makes use of very totally different substances: reconstituted skimmed milk focus, partially reconstituted whey powder (milk), glucose syrup, sugar, dextrose, palm stearin, palm oil, palm kernel oil, emulsifier (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), stabilisers (guar gum, sodium alginate), flavouring, colors (carotenes).

According to Paul, many of those – palm stearin, palm kernel oil, the reconstituted milks, the emulsifiers – are merely mimicking actual and costly substances reminiscent of milk, cream and eggs. This molecular alternative is vital to all UPF.

Traditional meals (or, as we’d extra correctly name it, meals) is constructed from three broad classes of molecules that give it its style, texture and energy: fat, proteins and carbohydrates.

The secret to ultra-processed ice lotions is that they are constructed from the most cost effective potential variations of these three important molecules.

And not simply ice lotions. Pies, fried rooster, pizza, butter, pancake combine, pastries, gravies, mayonnaise – all started as actual meals. 

But the non-UPF variations are costly, so their conventional substances are sometimes changed with low cost and typically totally artificial alternate options. 

Usually, these are extracted from crops grown for animal meals. The molecules are then refined and modified.

‘We can exchange virtually any ingredient with an inexpensive modified different,’ mentioned Paul.

Take starch, which is extracted from low cost crops. Once modified, there’s little you possibly can’t do with a starch. 

It may give a ‘milkshake’ a floor sheen and creamy texture. It can exchange costly dairy fat. Thin starch with acid and it is helpful for textiles and laundry. 

Treat it with propylene oxide and also you get that gloopy really feel for salad dressings. Mix it with phosphoric acid and you may enhance stability by way of a number of cycles of freezing and thawing – good for pie fillings.

What in regards to the gums in my daughter’s ice cream? If you take a look at meals labels, you may see plenty of these, together with guar gum, locust-bean gum, alginate, carrageenan and the near-ubiquitous xanthan gum.

The final of those is kind of revolting. It’s the slime that micro organism produce to permit them to cling to surfaces. Think of xanthan gum subsequent time you scrape the gunk out of your dishwasher filter.

Like the modified starches, gums are used to exchange dearer molecules and provides meals an extended shelf-life. This reminded Paul of a tortilla convention he’d attended.

‘One firm was boasting, in jest, that their merchandise had been primarily embalmed, with a shelf-life extending for years,’ he mentioned.

I should have regarded horrified, as a result of he shortly clarified that ‘everybody was delighted!’

Even that session with Paul did not handle to place me off my UPF weight-reduction plan.

At the top of Week Two, I used to be nonetheless wanting ahead to Morrisons All Day Breakfast, a frozen meal that is available in a three-compartment plastic tray with a movie lid – 768 energy of baked beans, hash browns, pork sausages, omelette and bacon.

Oven-ready in minutes.

In the UK, we eat extra prepared meals than another European nation. And virtually 90 per cent of us eat them repeatedly.

One day, whereas my All Day Breakfast sat within the oven, my spouse Dinah and I cooked some salmon, rice and broccoli for her and the children. 

This concerned 20 minutes of preparation, utilizing knives, three pans and a chopping board, leading to a pile of washing-up and fishy arms.

Forget train to drop pounds – minimize the UPFs

Lack of train has lengthy been assumed to be a essential purpose for weight problems. ‘Eat much less, transfer extra,’ is the mantra we’re inspired to undertake.

Makes good sense, would not it? If you progress extra, you may burn extra energy and drop pounds. Unfortunately, we now know this is not true.

Exercise will not burn any further energy out of your day by day whole, not even for those who stroll ten miles after breakfast.

Herman Pontzer, from Duke University within the US, is among the scientists who’s reworked how we take into consideration weight-reduction plan and metabolism.

For his seminal examine, he hung out with the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in northern Tanzania, measuring the full variety of energy they burned day by day. 

The outcomes had been opposite to expectations.

Even although the Hadza had been strolling miles every day, the two,500 energy they burned had been virtually precisely the

identical as these burned by the typical UK office-worker.

The identical factor has been reported in monkeys and apes: whether or not they’re within the wild or captive in zoos, they burn the identical variety of day by day energy.

The significance of that is immense: it means we can not drop pounds simply by growing exercise. 

So how can we sq. this with earlier research displaying that coal-mining burned eight instances as many energy as workplace work? 

Well, it seems that nobody really took measurements from coal miners. The information was all primarily based on surveys and assumptions.

When a staff from the US and Turkey lastly did correct measurements, they discovered that miners burned between 2,100 and a pair of,800 energy per day. 

The identical as the remainder of us. It appears inconceivable, I do know, however there is a easy clarification: once we take train, our our bodies compensate by utilizing much less power on different issues, so our general calorie-burning stays the identical. 

We might be very lively for a time period however we claw again that power debt later. 

Partly we do that by way of relaxation and partly our our bodies are doing it for us subconsciously.

After you’ve got burned quite a lot of energy by being lively, your physique scales again on routine non-essential processes, decreasing the quantity of power spent in your immune, endocrine, reproductive and stress techniques.

But what about workplace staff – how do they handle to expend 2,500 energy with out transferring a lot?

Scientists consider we expend these spare energy on different issues – reminiscent of getting burdened, resulting in elevated ranges of adrenaline, cortisol and white blood cells.

A sedentary way of life may also result in increased ranges of testosterone and oestrogen, which might result in elevated threat of most cancers. In brief, do not cease exercising!

If you actually wish to drop pounds (with out medical intervention), there’s one sure-fire resolution – minimize down as a lot as you possibly can on ultra-processed meals.


When we lastly sat all the way down to eat, Dinah learn out the substances of my prepared meal: ‘Dextrose, stabiliser (diphosphates), beef collagen casing, capsicum extract, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrite, stabilisers (xanthan gum and diphosphates), flavourings.’ She regarded up. ‘Why are you consuming diphosphates?’

The diphosphate stabilisers maintain all the things collectively by way of the freezing course of so the water would not kind crystals on the floor.

They’re only one side of what makes the All Day Breakfast such an pleasurable product, with the hash browns slightly crispy and simply the suitable degree of salt and pepper.

Above all, it is a straightforward meal. Easy to organize and straightforward to eat quick. While Dinah was nonetheless chewing her second mouthful, I used to be licking the container. 

Things began to alter through the third week of my ultra-processed weight-reduction plan, by which era I used to be chatting with dozens of consultants. 

I’d come off a telephone name to an educational in France or Brazil, then sit all the way down to a banquet of UPF.

Often, I’d even be consuming UPF through the name. But it felt more and more like studying about lung most cancers whereas smoking a cigarette. 

By that third week, I used to be struggling to eat the UPF with out enthusiastic about what the consultants had instructed me. 

One of those was Nicole Avena, a visiting professor at Princeton whose analysis focuses on meals habit and weight problems. 

Without components, she instructed me, the bottom industrial substances of UPF would most likely not be recognisable as meals by our tongues and brains.

‘It could be virtually like consuming dust,’ she mentioned.

After that, I began to note that a lot of what I used to be consuming had little greater than a veneer of meals. 

This was very true of the snacks and cereals manufactured from pastes of uncooked supplies, which had been fried, baked or puffed.

For instance, I’d come to take pleasure in a Grenade Carb Killa Chocolate Chip Salted Caramel Bar as a mid-morning snack. It appeared slightly more healthy than a easy chocolate bar.

After talking with Avena, I inspected the substances. Like many different bars, it is constructed from very modified carbohydrates, protein isolates from milk and beef (calcium caseinate, whey protein isolate, hydrolysed beef gelatine) and industrially processed palm fats, all certain along with emulsifiers. 

Without salt, sweetener and flavouring, I realised, my mid-morning snack would most likely be disagreeable to eat.

So would Maryland Minis Chocolate Chip Cookies, a favorite within the tea-room at work.

Again, they comprise modified carbs (refined flour and invert sugar syrup), plus industrial fat (palm, sal, shea), plus added protein (whey), glued along with soy lecithin emulsifier.

All made palatable with salt, sugar and flavouring.

As if this wasn’t off-putting, a Brazilian educational, Fernanda Rauber, talked to me at size in regards to the plastics in UPF packaging. 

Especially when heated, she mentioned, they considerably lower fertility – and in keeping with some consultants, could even trigger shrinkage of the penis.

It was Rauber who instructed me that ‘most UPF is just not meals – it is an industrially produced edible substance’.

These phrases started to hang-out my each meal. They echoed and underlined Avena’s concept that with out the colouring and flavouring, UPF would more than likely be inedible.

As I ate, there was a tussle in my mind. I nonetheless needed this meals that, in keeping with Rauber, wasn’t actually meals, however on the identical time I used to be not having fun with it.

Meals took on a uniformity: each­factor appeared comparable, no matter whether or not it was candy or savoury. I used to be by no means hungry, however I used to be additionally by no means glad.

Suddenly there was nothing I needed greater than contemporary greens, a couple of slices of free-range rooster and a tart-tasting apple.

Adapted from Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop? by Chris van Tulleken (Cornerstone, £22). © Chris van Tulleken 2023. To order a duplicate for £19.80, go to or name 020 3176 2937.