Are You Gonna Eat That?

(Grabien/Tatiana Meteleva)
October 8, 2023

Let’s say you’re scanning a few labels of convenience foods you have on hand. The "modified starch" in your tub of rice pudding sounds more innocuous than hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate, one of its scientific synthetic names. But maybe the "yellow prussiate of soda" vs. sodium ferrocyanide in your rolled oats is a closer call.

No matter. You as an average consumer in an industrialized nation probably don’t give either of them much thought, even though you are estimated to ingest 17.6 pounds of food additives per year. You assume they have been deemed safe for consumption and that they serve a purpose: to emulsify or stabilize, to extend shelf life, to keep bits from clumping together. Better living through chemistry!

What these ingredients have in common, though, is that they are among the thousands of "self-certified" industrial substances on the FDA’s list of GRAS additives, or Generally Recognized as Safe. Certified, as in, declared safe not by government standards, but by or on behalf of the companies who make and use them.

Chris van Tulleken does not think they are safe—so much so that he wrote this soapbox of a book, Ultra-Processed People. He is, among many things, a British-born infectious disease doctor with a Ph.D. in virology, a popular BBC personality and BAFTA award winner, a 45-year-old husband and father of two daughters, and an identical twin. Because of how he has put forth his arguments, he also has become a polarizing figure to those who are concerned about what we eat.

In citing studies and potentialities as well as his own anecdotal discoveries, van Tulleken is not the first to note that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which helps to shape food policy and trains dietitians in the United States, has accepted millions of dollars from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, and Conagra. He follows a pack of authorial scientists and policy experts on the effects of such substances on our diets and behaviors, including Marion Nestle (Unsavory Truth), Mark Schatzker (The Dorito Effect), and H.G. Wells (The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth).

Nor did he coin the term "ultra-processed foods" (UPFs), defined as "formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology." We’re talking foodstuffs not made in home kitchens and more than minimally processed: soft drinks, artificially flavored yogurts, packaged snack foods, mass-produced breads and breakfast cereals, instant sauces and puddings, frozen pizzas, drive-thru fried chicken and milkshakes.

Van Tulleken characterizes UPFs as "addictive edibles" that our bodies don’t quite know what to do with. Because they are cheap and their effect as additives tends to reformulate and/or substitute whole foods, they do not promote healthful diets. It is not a question of whether they are harmful to humans, but rather how much damage they cause in the form of our burdened microbiomes, obesity-related diseases, and shortened lifespans. UPFs are designed "to get us hooked," thereby increasing the market share of the transnational food conglomerates that deploy them. Furthermore, he declares, "they seem to require fraudulent marketing."

Not all UPFs have been created with questionable intent, he allows. German chemists in the late 1930s discovered what is regarded as the first synthetic food. By extracting oils and waxes from coal (!), they produced a tasteless fatty acid that, when mixed with beta-carotene and diacetyl (the chemical molecule long responsible for the buttery flavor and aroma of microwave popcorn), begat coal butter. Food from fuel; this was heralded as a positive development by futurists at the time.

Along more diabolical lines, van Tulleken relays the negative outcomes of powdered infant formula dispensed to poor mothers and the "true cost of Pringles."

Chapter and verse are devoted to stun hearts and minds about UPFs. Corn and soy beans are turned into proteins that are hydrolyzed (as flavor enhancers for meat and poultry), into starches that can be modified (in that rice pudding of yours), and oils that are refined, bleached, deodorized, hydrogenated, and interesterified (a tongue twister; a rearranging of certain fatty acids in order to adjust melting points; and some liken the effect to why trans fats were effectively banned). Xanthan gum, the thickener and emulsifier ubiquitous in commercial ice creams and gluten-free products, is produced by way of a microbe that breaks down raw carbohydrates such as glucose and natural starches. The author describes xanthan gum as emanating from "slime that bacteria produce to allow them to cling to surfaces."

Yet, van Tulleken professes to remain open-minded: "I sincerely don’t have a moral opinion about eating UPF. … The goal should be that you live in a world where you have real choices and the freedom to make them."

Ultra-Processed People is full of judgment, it seems, and that is just one reason its author has engendered criticism. What about the vast benefits of keeping foods from spoiling, the upside of maintaining the color of vegetables and meats so they remain appealing enough to consume? Are the UPFs themselves truly harmful, or are they among several factors that lead to addictive behaviors and overeating? Even he admits that obesity has more causes than UPFs.

Van Tulleken does offer coping strategies: Push for greater government oversight. Underwrite research with funds that do not come from food and beverage industries. Establish food policies that are not dictated by large food corporations. Seek advice from a medical profession that promotes a diet mindful of UPFs. And dig deeper into your pockets, because foods that do not contain artificial preservatives, flavors, or chemicals—hello, organics!—are going to cost you.

Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food
by Chris van Tulleken
W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $30

Bonnie S. Benwick, formerly of the Washington Post food section, is a freelance editor and recipe tester. You can find her on Instagram and Threads: @bbenwick.


Published under: Book reviews , FDA , Food