During the Harvest in Ukraine

How Ultra-Processed Foods Ate the Food Supply

Among the many interesting presentations from three days of focus on causes of obesity, a just-so story stands out. We heard a number of just-so stories this week – untested fables to explain how we came to have so much obesity. They fit neatly with with an agenda that calls for a discussion of conjectures. But we appreciated Kevin Hall identifying his story of how ultra-processed foods took over the food supply as an intriguing and possibly untestable conjecture.

It reminds us that ultra-processed foods solved one problem while possibly creating a new one. A classic story of unintended consequences.

Worries About a Starving Planet

Hall started with Thomas Malthus – a cleric, demographer, and economist of the late 18th and early 19th century. Malthus proposed an idea that became known as the Malthusian trap, in which he held that famine and war are the inevitable results of population growth that outpaces food production:

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

A Solution and a Problem

Hall bridged from a litany of such dire predictions to the legacy of Earl Butz, a notoriously racist Secretary of Agriculture, who admonished farmers to get “big or  get out” and thus plant agricultural commodity crops “from fencerow to fencerow.” They did and the result was abundant commodities that fueled the growth of a largely ultra-processed food supply. Hall explained:

“We don’t eat soy, corn, and wheat directly. But we found ways to feed livestock these grains and change their normal feeding patterns. And of course, with the wonders of food science and technology, we can produce the amazing amounts of foods that are based on these foods, to give us what is now an ultra-processed food system.”

Lingering Questions

Can we and should we undo this? Some people are totally convinced that the evidence linking ultra-processed foods to ill health is so consistent that we must make policies to reduce the production and consumption of them. Carlos Monteiro makes this argument with a newly published article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. He leaves no doubt about this in his debate with Arne Astrup on the subject.

But Astrup is equally clear that the definition of ultra-processed foods is inadequate to support policymaking. It is vague and contradictory. Because of this, “many healthy foods and meals will be misclassified as ultra-processed foods,” he writes.

These questions are important. The complexity of the issues they raise should not make us turn away, nor should it make us lurch toward policies that will cause even greater problems than the ones we face now.

Progress will always involve making new mistakes, as Esther Dyson reminds us. Fair enough. But let’s make them with our eyes wide open about what we know and what we don’t, ready to learn and correct for inevitable errors.

Click here for Hall’s excellent presentation and here for an excellent panel discussion of unresolved questions it raises. For the newly published debate between Monteiro and Astrup, click here.

During the Harvest in Ukraine, painting by Ivan Aivazovsky / WikiArt

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October 21, 2022

3 Responses to “How Ultra-Processed Foods Ate the Food Supply”

  1. October 21, 2022 at 8:51 am, David Brown said:

    “We don’t eat soy, corn, and wheat directly. But we found ways to feed livestock these grains and change their normal feeding patterns.”

    Feeding grains to livestock also altered the fatty acid profile of animal products. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5093368/

    Scientists now possess the tools to identify individuals who eat “industrial” meat. “A study led by University of Utah researchers finds that this record reveals a divergence in diet according to socioeconomic status (SES), with lower-SES areas displaying higher proportions of protein coming from cornfed animals. It’s a way, the authors write, to assess a community’s diet and their health risks.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200803160504.htm

  2. October 21, 2022 at 11:03 pm, Chester Draws said:

    The rise in obesity is correlated rather more with wealth and removal from manual labour than ultra-processed foods. It’s not like Europeans are the same weight they were 50 years ago, and they eat far less of the “ultra-processed” foods. Hungarians, for instance, have very different diets to the US.

    I know lots of people with obesity who have never eaten grain or soy fed beef, don’t eat much processed food etc (I’m not in the US).

    What they do have in common is very large meals and not very much physical activity.

    • October 22, 2022 at 4:00 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for this, Chester. I also know many people with obesity who lead very active lives and eat rather modest, healthful meals. Neither of our two observations are adequate to solve this puzzle.