Why is

Ultra Processed Food

such a big deal?

As a society we are emerging out of our isolated slumber, rubbing our eyes, weary, slowly re-integrating, remembering how things used to be done, appreciating just how important being in the physical presence of others truly is.

A far less abrupt change of our behaviour has occurred over the last few generations, a gradual erosion of ties that had bound us since we arrived as a species.  The agricultural revolution gave way to the industrial revolution, people flocked to cities, individualism reigned whilst collectivism decayed.

Out of this industrial revolution, ultra processed food (UPF) was born: a small number of basic ingredients, usually stripped of any nutrition, would be combined in a myriad of ways through industrial process, padded out with sugar, salt and fat, a vast number of chemicals such as emulsifiers, thickeners, flavour enhancers and preservatives, as well as artificial flavourings: all to make this food hyper-palatable and addictive so that you eat more, and buy more product.  Finally, nutrients are added back in to much hype and pomp on the packets (think cereal trumpeting added vitamins and minerals): this reductive approach doesn’t work: a given vitamin may well do nothing on its own, without a number of co-factors which also exist in natural foods.

We are only now finding out just how bad this food is for us, and in many western nations, UPF makes up 60% of our diet (remember, even supermarket bread is a UPF), and in the developing world they are catching up fast.  Our doctors and hospitals spend trillions of pounds treating these ‘lifestyle’ or ‘Non-communicable’ diseases caused by food: think obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease.  As Jamie Oliver once said ‘“Homicide is 0.8% of deaths. Diet-related disease is over 60%. But no one talks about it.” 

The key drivers of a diet rich in UPF is the destruction of our microbiome.  If we count all the cells in our body, as well as all the microbes in our gut, it turns out we are only 10% human!  

The bacteria that we co-evolved with constitute a massive ecosystem, like a forest: the advantage is that it can adapt quickly to our omnivorous diet as it changes, but equally it can very quickly be destroyed.  This ecosystem is highly complex, and we are learning that it is a key component of our immune system, and the excessive use of antibiotics are more than likely causing all the allergies we have seen since the 1940s when antibiotic use became commonplace.  The gut-brain axis is highly interesting and there is much research which shows the link between our microbiome and mental health: indeed many neurotransmitters are actually created solely by our gut bacteria.

We are finding out that the human body is so intricate and complex: there are no simple answers like counting calories: for example twin studies have shown that despite identical genetics, if our microbiomes are different, then we process food in completely different ways.  The twin with a healthy and fit microbiome can overeat and will hardly gain any weight whereas the twin with the depleted and diseased microbiome. easily gained weight, as well becoming ill in a number of other ways (e.g. becoming pre-diabetic).

Recent research has even shown that eating UPF regularly actually alters the make-up of adult brains as we become ensnared by the lure of this artificial and addictive ‘food’.  Furthermore, there is a huge elephant in the room: it is well known that diet-related diseases are a huge and significant factor when discussing COVID-19 related mortality, yet it hasn’t been focused on at all.

UPF is so entrenched in our societies, having been marketed at us for so many years.  There are so many food deserts in impoverished areas where it is just too easy to buy processed and junk food, especially when people haven’t been bequeathed with a basic understanding of how to plan, budget and cook real food.  It’s a huge problem and it is not an easy one to solve quickly.  Of course, in the world we live in we can’t completely cut out UPF but there has to be some balance, and it shouldn’t constitute more than 20% of our diet.  Also, to have a healthy microbiome we need to be eating a diverse range of plant based ingredients, with much more fibre than the average person consumes.

Food education is key: we need to teach our children about real food from the outset, like the Finnish have done with their ‘Sapere’ Sensory Food Education programme (which has led to TasteEd in the UK).  Many adults also need help: setting up the pantry and kitchen for success will empower people to have the confidence and knowledge to cook real, unprocessed food which nurtures our microbiome health, for themselves and their families!  We need to learn to embrace a huge diversity of plant based foods, full of fibre, to feed and regrow a healthy and diverse microbiome and a human race that will fight disease and promote a happy, healthy life.

Kuli Singh

Food Educator, Kuli’s Kitchen

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