Having read very few non-fiction books in my 28 years on Earth, choosing to instead escape into worlds of crumbling galactic empires and soft fairy porn, it struck me by surprise when one Sunday morning whilst ritualistically watching Sunday Brunch, I saw something I instinctively knew I had to read. Immediately.
Dr Chris van Tulleken was a guest on with Simon and Tim, talking about Ultra Processed Foods. In all honesty, I’d never really thought twice about how processed foods work, sure I knew that the list of 17 ingredients on the back of a KitKat couldn’t be great for you, but surely the companies making these products wouldn’t put in things that weren’t good for us, right? Because food is produced for us, the people and our nutrition! Not profit, right?
Why I had never thought to search what xantham gum was before I will never know but by 2pm on the Sunday I had Chris’ book in my hand. And so, began an ongoing journey of discovery, sliding out of the matrix like a slimy xanthan gum covered Keanu, I feel like I’ve woken up. If you don’t want to start checking the back of food packets and telling your friends what they're actually eating, turn back now.
The NOVA classification system categorises food items based on the extent and purpose of industrial food processing. It was developed by a research team at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and is now recognised by major health institutions worldwide, including the World Health Organization (WHO).
In the NOVA system, Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) are designated as Group 4 foods.
UPFs are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact food. They usually contain five or more ingredients and include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations. Is it an ingredient you would find in your kitchen? UPF often contain flavours, colours, emulsifiers, and other additives that imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.
Group 1 - Unprocessed or minimally processed foods:
These are natural foods altered by processes like removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, or non-alcoholic fermentation. No added salt, sugar, oils, fats, or other substances are included in the food during their preparation. Examples include fresh fruits, grains, legumes, meats, milk, etc.
Group 2 - Processed culinary ingredients:
These are substances obtained directly from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying. They are used in kitchens to transform Group 1 foods into diverse preparations. Examples include sugar, oils, butter, salt, etc.
Group 3 - Processed foods:
These are relatively simple products made by adding sugar, oil, salt, or other Group 2 substances to Group 1 foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. Examples include canned vegetables, fruits, and legumes, salted meat, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses, and freshly made unpackaged breads.
Here are some of the ingredients and additives that typically signal a food is ultra-processed:
High-fructose corn syrup
Hydrogenated or interesterified oils (sources of trans fats)
Artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame, Sucralose)
Artificial colours and flavours
Preservatives (such as sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate)
Emulsifiers (such as lecithin, mono- and diglycerides)
Thickeners and stabilisers (such as xanthan gum, carrageenan)
Anti-foaming agents and bulking agents
Humectants, sequestrates, and firming agents
Flavour enhancers (such as monosodium glutamate)
Ultra-processed foods include fizzy drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, packaged breads and rolls, reconstituted meat products like chicken nuggets or fish fingers, instant noodles and soups, and many ready-to-heat products including pre-prepared pasta and pizza. You know, all the good stuff.
Artificial sweeteners have a historical connection to coal tar, that isn't just a clickbait title.
Saccharin, one of the earliest artificial sweeteners, was discovered in the late 19th century when a chemist was working with toluene, a derivative of coal tar. However, the manufacturing processes for saccharin has evolved since then and it is now made from different chemicals. The important word is chemicals, not food.
Xanthan gum is a common food additive that you might see listed in the ingredients of many processed foods, like salad dressings, sauces, or gluten-free products. It's used because it's a great thickening agent and stabiliser, meaning it helps to prevent ingredients from separating and gives food a good texture.
Xanthan gum is produced by a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. This is the same bacteria that causes a disease called black rot in certain plants, like broccoli or cauliflower.
When we make xanthan gum, we're basically putting this bacteria into a broth and letting it ferment. The bacteria produces a kind of gooey substance which is then dried and turned into a powder, and this powder is xanthan gum.
The growing consumption of UPFs has been associated with a range of health issues, including obesity, hypertension, and other non-communicable diseases. It’s important to remember that these “foods” are designed to be profitable (low-cost ingredients with a longer shelf-life), appealing (heavily marketed), and convenient (ready-to-consume).
It’s not ‘real’ food that’s addictive, it’s UPF which isn’t food at all, but industrially produced edible substances. Designed for profit, not for your body. If you really break it down as you start to become more conscious of the stuff you're eating, you'll realise it's not really food. A general rule of thumb is "could I make this from scratch in my kitchen?" if the answer is no, maybe reconsider.
The Economic Issue
It’s easy for me to make a sweeping statement “I’m not eating coal tar anymore”. I’m currently a young person, with no dependents, on a decent salary, living in a shared one bed flat with my boyfriend. I have access to a fridge and a freezer. It’s a privilege for me to have the choice over what I eat and what I buy. People just can’t afford fresh f*cking fish, vegetables from the grocer and organic meat.
A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The scarcity of affordable, healthy food is so acute in some of the poorest parts of Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Durham and the Welsh valleys that the vast majority of neighbourhoods in these areas should get targeted help, Which? says.
The study found nearly half of neighbourhoods in the north-east of England – and about a third in Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the north-west of England – lacked easy access to supermarkets, and had poor availability for online deliveries and low levels of car ownership, making it much harder for low-income households to put food on the table.
Researchers at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) found that “people are having to buy what they can afford rather than having the luxury of choice” in the cost of living crisis – often, that means opting for the unhealthy option. Other people don’t live in a home with facilities for cooking or storing meals.
In the UK, 2.8 million people are living without a freezer (1 in 10) and 900,000 people living without a fridge (1 in 30).
The UK’s food poverty rate is among the highest in Europe. Despite being the sixth richest country in the world, millions are struggling to access the food they need.
Remember this, food production is still a business. People want to make money and they want you to make it for them by buying the stuff they're making, continually.
There are more ingredients on the back of a Kitkat and more issues surrounded UPF than I could possibly breakdown in this article. I haven't even begun to talk about food regulatory companies, how many unregulated additives that are still inside our food and why, controversial opinion here, it isn't really your fault if you're overweight. I was addicted to Ultra Processed Food, we all are. I have tried to cut out UPF completely, but it's tough, but I am more conscious than I have ever been.
If you do decide to continue the journey down the path of UPF like I am, I'd recommend you start with Dr Chris' book, and understand, as evidence suggests, what it’s doing to your brain, your body, and our environments, you might think twice before you eat anymore xantham gum.
Ultra-Processed People, C. Van Tulleken. 2023.
Food insecurity in the UK is among the worst in Europe, especially for children, says the committee. 2019.
Claims about UK wealth and poverty are flawed. 2019.