Beyond Meat Jerky and Hippeas

Exactly How Bad Is the Abundance of Ultra-Processed Food?

Two publications this week set up a stark contrast in views of how bad the abundance of ultra-processed food is. In the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Kevin Hall tells us that these foods present us with a huge challenge. He writes that we must:

“Transform the current food system to one that relies less on fossil fuels, ensures environmental health, and provides equitable access to affordable, safe and nutritious food that reduces the prevalence of chronic diet-related diseases like obesity.”

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik offers something more like a shrug. He writes:

“The two reasonable questions of diet are: What pleasure does it provide when you eat it? and Will it kill you sooner than you deserve to die? Everything else is only the cosmopolitan confusion on our plates.”

The Drive to Reform a Huge System

Hall is the author of an impressive study documenting the effects of ultra-processed foods in a tightly controlled setting. With his new paper, he chronicles the evolution of an insufficient food supply. We now have one that provides an abundance of “convenient, rewarding, timesaving, and relatively inexpensive ultra-processed foods.”

He offers an inventory of possible mechanisms by which ultra-processed foods might be causing obesity. These include high energy density, a higher eating rate, hyper-palatability, highly processed carbs, low protein content, and altered digestion. The final possibility, altered nutrients, flavors, and bioactives, makes room for a lot of possibilities, as yet not fully documented.

The system is problematic, he says:

“The current food system in the USA relies heavily on fossil fuels to generate a huge surplus of calories available in a wide variety of heavily marketed foods that are inexpensive, convenient, ubiquitous, energy dense and often hyper-palatable.”

Separating Prudence from Puritanism

In essence, Gopnik advises us to chill. He sees something akin to religious fervor at work:

“Clearly, demarcating ultra-processed food from its neighbors has some of the inscrutable qualities of any dietary religion, not unlike debates about what is and is not kosher, and though one is a product of industrial civilization and the other handed down by God, both enterprises share a slightly mystical insistence on purity.

“Here, as so often in reformist food literature, it is not always easy to separate prudence from puritanism.”

Proceed with Caution

These folks have our attention. It is clear enough that at least some ultra-processed foods can be problematic. But these foods are very heterogeneous. Roughly three-quarters of more than 50,000 items in our food supply qualify as ultra-processed. To suggest that all of them present similar risks borders on absurdity. So we would do well to bear this caution from Gopnik in mind:

“Some measure of food insecurity persists even in contemporary America, to say nothing of lower-income countries. Dilemmas of abundance are painful. The diseases of subsistence are deadly.”

Click here for the paper by Hall and here for the article from Gopnik.

Beyond Meat Jerky and Hippeas, photograph by Ted Kyle / ConscienHealth

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July 29, 2023

One Response to “Exactly How Bad Is the Abundance of Ultra-Processed Food?”

  1. July 30, 2023 at 3:02 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Dr. Hall’s study gave a really good insight that UPF leads to high caloric intake. Imo, there ARE way too many UPFs on the market, especially in the USA, and it’s the responsibility of food manufacturers, suppliers working together with public health officials to do something about it — such as consider the nutrient and ingredient profile of an UPF as part of the decision to scale up their production and distribution so that very high calorie, but overall poor nutritional and ingredient content products be prohibited from a product category for market. I’m always gobsmacked when I return to the States and see supermarket aisle space for 20+ versions of a similar UPF product, like chips, crackers, ice cream, jerky, cookies, snack cakes. There are some UPF that are great, like dried legumes, dark-chocolate covered frozen fruits and vegan ice cream bars, canned veg and fruits, fish. These latter products give convenience, taste, cost, and choice but with many nutritional benefits other than cheap sources of only high calories.

    I have an additional suggestion on a criteria that needs considering when evaluating UPFs — packaging!! Points OFF for any non-biodegradable cheap, toxic-prone packaging that clogs up our landfills, oceans, earth and air. If the product comes with awful packaging, it’s a no-go.