Book Review: Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken

Title: Ultra-Processed People

Author: Chris Van Tulleken

Page Count: 384

Publish Date: June 27, 2023

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Synopsis:

It’s not you, it’s the food.

We have entered a new age of eating. For the first time in human history, most of our calories come from an entirely novel set of substances called Ultra-Processed Food. There’s a long, formal scientific definition, but it can be boiled down to this: if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen, it’s UPF.

These products are specifically engineered to behave as addictive substances, driving excess consumption. They are now linked to the leading cause of early death globally and the number one cause of environmental destruction. Yet almost all our staple foods are ultra-processed. UPF is our food culture and for many people it is the only available and affordable food.

In this book, Chris van Tulleken, father, scientist, doctor, and award-winning BBC broadcaster, marshals the latest evidence to show how governments, scientists, and doctors have allowed transnational food companies to create a pandemic of diet-related disease. The solutions don’t lie in willpower, personal responsibility, or exercise. You’ll find no diet plan in this book―but join Chris as he undertakes a powerful self-experiment that made headlines around the world: under the supervision of colleagues at University College London he spent a month eating a diet of 80 percent UPF, typical for many children and adults in the United States. While his body became the subject of scientific scrutiny, he spoke to the world’s leading experts from academia, agriculture, and―most important―the food industry itself. But more than teaching him about the experience of the food, the diet switched off Chris’s own addiction to UPF.

In a fast-paced and eye-opening narrative he explores the origins, science, and economics of UPF to reveal its catastrophic impact on our bodies and the planet. And he proposes real solutions for doctors, for policy makers, and for all of us who have to eat. A book that won’t only upend the way you shop and eat, Ultra-Processed People will open your eyes to the need for action on a global scale.

Ultra-Processed People

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My Review:

I first learned about Ultra-Processed People after watching a short YouTube video about the book. I knew I had to read this book after that, as I needed to know more, so it was added to my TBR and quickly pushed to the priority pile.

One important caveat, and one the author himself mentions, is that it is best to continue eating ultra-processed foods while reading this book. This way you can notice the gummy texture of foods when you are reading about all the additives like gaur gum, or how smooth it is when discovering the emulsifiers added in. This is something I did as well and it became very apparent the more I ate the less I wanted to as I learned about these processes.

So the question is, what is ultra-processed food? The answer isn’t as cut and dry as one would think, however, there is one general quote that sums it up.

There’s a very long, formal definition, but it boils down to if something is wrapped in plastic and contains an ingredient that you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen, then it’s almost certainly an ultra-processed food.

Truth be told, that covers probably 90% of what we find in grocery stores today. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In fact, he goes into the origins of ultra-processed food, which can be traced back to the World Wars and their need for easy-to-transport food for the troops. Now, this is only the beginning of ultra-processed foods and it would be some time before they truly took off. However, I couldn’t help but be surprised that their origins were so long ago but once that first food-related discovery was made, it was only a matter of time before companies jumped on the bandwagon.

Van Tulleken does a wonderful job of covering various studies that have been done over the last few decades that focus not only on these foods and additives, but also obesity and other diseases that can, and often are, linked to ultra-processed foods. He also breaks this information down into easy-to-understand chunks – because let’s face it, how many of us could read a scientific paper on these subjects and understand half of what is in them?

But these studies aren’t always what they seem, because despite often saying there is no conflict of interest between the companies and the investigating people, it is often revealed later that those people either work for or were funded by the companies they were investigating. So, it can be hard to determine what information is correct given where the funds are coming from.

Is someone truly going to say the sugar in soft drinks is bad or that we shouldn’t eat so many cookies in a day when Pepsi, Coke, or Nabisco are paying those people? Probably not.

But van Tulleken dives deeper into these statistics and finds the answers that are hidden under all these false reports. He goes into the various chemical ingredients and other additives that have been added to our food to make them cheaper, more palatable, shelf-stable, and other traits that do little but get us addicted to those products while lining those companies’ pockets.

After all, why are there ingredients in our food, that are also in shampoos or tires or any other number of non-edible items?

It’s not just newer products that fall into this category. He highlights the history of coal butter- yes, it was a real thing. And if reading about that doesn’t make you question how much of this food comes to be, I don’t know what will.

While many people have an inherent understanding that many of the foods in grocery stores aren’t particularly good for you, I was one of these people, I found myself truly shocked at what exactly goes into these food-like products. How much research, time, and money has been invested into making the most palatable, good-tasting, addictive “foods” out there, and yet so little of it is true food.

Even more surprising is how, when broken down, most food is the same combination of ingredients, yet they come in so many different flavors and textures. It is only small differences that make a cookie look, feel, and taste different from breakfast cereal, potato chips, various dips, or any other packaged food.

If you have any interest in what you are eating, have any health issues (whether they are or aren’t connected to food), or are simply curious about the subject, I highly recommend you read this book. In fact, I think everyone should read this book because it will truly make you look at foods differently.

I hope you enjoyed my review of Ultra-Processed People. Have you read this book?

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review! This book sounds really interesting. Put it on my que.

    1. Author

      You’re welcome. It’s quite an interesting read.

  2. Thank you for the review. Sounds like a must-read book.

    1. Author

      It’s certainly one I recommend everyone picking up. It’s quite an eye-opener.

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