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The Hater - Ultra Processed Foods
The unhelpful binarisation of food. Words by Laura Thomas.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles!
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The Hater is a column dedicated to the art of hating. Each week, a different writer examines something they hate, or observes a trend of hating in the food world.
Past columns have included:
The TV Food Man, by Ruby Tandoh
Everybody Hates Norman’s, by Tom Usher
Rich People Peasantcore, by Sheena Patel
Gatekeeping Pubs, by Jimmy McIntosh
The Gallery Dinner, by Phoebe Cripps
STREETFOODZ and other atrocities, by Katie Mulkowski
Why I hate Americans talking about tacos in London, by Chloe-Rose Crabtree
Against Curation, by Jonathan Nunn
What is the point of the recipe box?, by Thea Everett
Against Culinary Cuckooism, by Luke Dunne
McLondon, by Robbie Armstrong
The biweekly British vs American food debate, by Niloufar Haidari
What is wrong with the London restaurant scene
Gut Feelings, by James Greig
Today’s Hater is Laura Thomas
UPF and the binarisation of food, by Laura Thomas
What do the following foods all have in common?
A carton of Oatly milk
A can of Diet Coke,
A wholemeal Hovis loaf
An Innocent smoothie
If you guessed that they are a) all tasty, b) all plant-based or c) all convenient then you would be correct, but for the purposes of this exercise, wrong. The correct answer is: they are all examples of UPF.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed this new acronym – which stands for ‘ultra-processed food’ – cropping up in headlines in the food or health section of your newspaper of choice. UPFs are the latest supervillain of the nutrition world. They have been linked to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, adolescent asthma and wheezing, frailty, and increased risk of premature death. What’s more, they’re ubiquitous in our food supply, making up around 56.8% of the UK diet, while as recently as last week, The Guardian asked ‘why are 1 in 7 of us addicted to ultra processed foods?. As a nutritionist whose MO is to help people feel less afraid of food, I’ve seen the ways UPF discourse has heightened our fear and anxiety over the fundamental act of nourishing ourselves. What seems like a new frontier in nutritional sciences is really just a variation on the theme of dichotomising foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and reinforcing arbitrary binaries.
So what are UPFs, and how did we stop hating on fat and sugar and start hating on half the products in our weekly shop? In nutritional science, we have historically focused on individual nutrients; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it made sense to isolate vitamins and minerals when we learned that a deficiency of vitamin C led to scurvy and that too little vitamin D caused rickets. But as nutritional science has evolved, we have learned that focusing on individual nutrients isn’t always helpful, because people don’t eat nutrients, they eat food. (Besides, a myopic focus on individual nutrients can cause fear and anxiety – remember when everyone thought eggs were ‘bad’ because they contained cholesterol?) When we reduce food down to its constituent parts, we lose sight of the infinite complex reactions and interactions that happen when we eat, including those that can’t easily be measured or captured by science. This is a phenomenon known as nutritional reductionism, or simply nutritionism. While it’s still important to understand the role of different nutrients, nutrition science has (broadly speaking) evolved past the nutrient, and even the food, level, and seeks instead to understand dietary patterns. Is the diet of an individual or a population varied, balanced, and nutritionally complete? And how do particular dietary patterns relate to well-being or disease?
Because UPFs look at why and how our foods are produced, they are often considered to circumvent some of these issues of reductionism. The most widely adopted model used to define the level of processing a food has been through is the NOVA classification system. NOVA – which (unlike UPF) doesn’t stand for anything, annoyingly – was developed by a group of Brazilian academics, led by researcher Carlos Monteiro, at the University of São Paulo. In 2009, Monteiro published a paper in the journal Public Health Nutrition. The thesis proposed that ‘the nature, extent and purpose of food processing explain what is now the relationship between food, nutrition, health and disease.’ Basically, instead of thinking about the nutrients a food contains, or the overall pattern of foods in one’s diet, these researchers made the case that how foods were prepared and the degree to which they were processed explained how they contributed towards disease.
Monteiro divided food into four categories: 1) unprocessed or minimally processed (let’s say milk); 2) processed culinary ingredients – usually group 1 foods that have undergone some sort of pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying (that same milk, turned into butter); 3) processed food, usually a mix of group 1 or group 2 foods that have undergone various preserving and cooking methods, as well as non-alcoholic fermentation (that same milk, turned into cheese) and 4) ultra-processed food – formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with processes including hydrogenation, hydrolysation, extrusion, moulding, and pre-processing for frying (that same milk, turned into a Petit Filous or Magnum Double Caramel). Basically, if you can’t make it yourself in your kitchen and it’s sold by a big corporation, it’s probably UPF.
As demonstrated by the examples, UPF can be anything from supermarket brown bread and hummus all the way through to Haribo and Party Rings. (For the record, I love Party Rings.) These are disparate foods – that patently have wildly different nutritional profiles and undergo very different processes – all being lumped together under one banner. Because NOVA only has four ‘levels’ of food processing, it doesn’t allow enough granularity to tease out ‘healthy’ UPF from ‘unhealthy’ UPF. A central question that nutrition researchers still need to answer is: Which processes confer positive or neutral benefits to food, and which might be potentially unhelpful or even harmful to human health? By collapsing all of these different foods together, we have created a new, reductionist paradigm, and with it a new moral panic.
Let’s be clear here – most of us already intuitively understand that subsisting entirely on Giant Wotsits isn’t great for our health. Diets higher in UPF have been linked to adverse health outcomes in the scientific literature, and this, quite reasonably, causes people to panic. But it isn’t helped by anxiety-inducing headlines like ‘Why Ultra-Processed Foods Are So Bad for You’, and ‘Britain’s Diet is More Deadly Than Covid’. Instead of being thoughtful musings on how to repair a broken food system, these articles are perfect examples of writers uncritically regurgitating university press releases. A nuance that is typically glided over in reporting is that it’s virtually impossible to make causal inferences from these types of studies. Although diets higher in UPF are associated with poorer health outcomes, it’s more difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing a particular effect. People who eat the most UPF are different to those who eat the least on virtually every conceivable level: education, income, family history of disease, deprivation. These are things researchers can measure and control for, but even then they don’t account for all the differences. Nutritional science as a whole has a pretty bad track record when it comes to considering the complex factors that shape our experiences of health and well-being – racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and anti-fat bias – all of which are routinely endorsed by the government and rarely controlled for in research.
I’m not arguing that we don’t need to change the food system. My argument is that the headlines have leapfrogged science, allowing people in places of power and privilege to create fear and shame about the food we eat. This creates a sense of urgency that keeps us focused on food as the issue, rather than the social, political, and structural forces that shape our lives and our experiences of well-being. Instead of rallying against systematic underfunding and the backdoor privatisation of healthcare, we’re occupied with finding minimally processed alternatives to Dairy Milk. In September 2023, more than 25% of households with children experienced a degree of food insecurity, and almost 8% of those homes went without food for an entire day. So when over 4 million children in England alone don’t have enough to eat, acquiescing to aggressively middle-class values of what constitutes a ‘good diet’ might not be the highest priority. We need Healthy Start vouchers to actually cover the cost of first infant formula. We need to feed the 175,000 babies and children who seek refuge in the UK each year, but who are likely to go hungry under barbaric immigration policy. And if London can have universal free school meals, then so can the rest of the country.
The story of the Good Food Guys versus an evil corporate food system does make for a compelling narrative, but it ultimately funnels our ire and angst away from deeper systemic issues, ironically creating a heightened sense of personal responsibility. Even though the food industry is cast as the baddie, when we fail to live up to the exacting standards of eating set out by food elites, it is a personal failure of self-discipline. Rather than demanding an end to institutionalised poverty, a major concern of food elites is how removing UPF from our diets would help us return to a simpler time – when people ate seasonally and locally – in a way that would be both better for us and for the planet. This is clear in the reductive advice, ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food,’ popularised by Michael Pollan. Not only is this deeply insulting to great-grandmothers all over the world, it downplays how much work it was for your great-grandmother to have something to eat at all. Food elites like to evoke the fantasy of great-grandma without acknowledging just how essential her unpaid labour was or how she felt about doing it. It also glosses over how monotonous and sometimes nutritionally inadequate her diet would have been, with calcium and riboflavin (a B vitamin) being particularly low in the diets of pre-war Great Britain. Working-class people were even more at risk of deficiencies (because of structural economic inequity, as is still the case today), in particular vitamin A, B1, and C, plus iron – many of which are added to fortified foods now.
Besides, nutrition is never all or nothing; there is space to eat fresh, ‘minimally processed’ foods and fill gaps with UPF – many of which are an important source of nutrition themselves. Fortified breakfast cereals can help kids meet their iron requirements, and half a tin of baked beans is a good source of fibre and protein – plus, it counts as one of your 5 A Day. UPF can be a lifeline for disabled or older people who otherwise can’t cook everything from scratch. We have yet to establish what constitutes ‘a little’ and what is considered ‘a lot’ of UPF in the diet, while there’s significant variability between foods that are all lumped under the same ultra-processed banner. There is so much certainty in the UPF discourse that belies both the confidence we have in the science and the reality of how we eat.
What is certain is that our current food system is neither sustainable nor equitable. But in the hypothetical UPF-free food system, where we cannot access convenience and ready-made foods, who do we expect to do the labour of growing plants, tending to animals, baking bread, soaking beans, chopping, blending, frying, roasting, grilling? Who will take the time to plan meals and snacks, and take on the labour of learning skills, finding recipes, figuring out how to safely store fresh foods and making sure there is always something to eat (because we can’t just grab something from the snack drawer)? And what about food in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, nurseries, and prisons? Are we going to increase budgets to allow for the extra time, skill, and people required to provide minimally processed foods in these institutions? And what is the opportunity cost if we do? Even longer hospital waiting times? Even lower nursery ratios? Even less support and resources for teachers? Once again, if we keep pretending like this is a personal nutrition or wellness journey, we stop short of asking really difficult questions.
I do not know what a just and equitable food system looks like, but I know in my bones that it begins and ends with care. Care for the land, care for the animals, and ultimately, care for the people.
Laura Thomas is a Registered Nutritionist who writes the Can I Have Another Snack? newsletter where she helps people feel less afraid of feeding themselves and their families.
This essay was condensed from a three part guide to UPF originally published on Can I Have Another Snack?
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.