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Artillery Row

The UPF panic is a fad

Chris van Tulleken cannot seem to decide what an ultra-processed food even is

Regular readers will fondly recall Ultra-Processed People, the best-selling book by the virologist and children’s entertainer Chris van Tulleken which I reviewed in two parts last year. The paperback edition was published this month and, God help me, I bought it to see if he had corrected any mistakes. More about that another day. For now, let us dwell on the new material for it includes an extra chapter.

Titled “What happened next … and some FAQs”, the chapter might as well have been divided into “Liars” and “Twats” such is van Tulleken’s desire to settle a score. In September 2023, after five months of uncritical adulation from everyone from Charlotte Church (“Has completely changed my eating habits”) to Chris Evans (“Completely compelling”), van Tulleken faced some pushback from food scientists who gently suggested that eating wholemeal bread and wholegrain breakfast cereals might not be so bad for your health. On 27 September, the Science Media Centre held an online panel with five scientists, including the chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Food Standards Agency, who raised a number of objections to the growing demonisation of a vast range of foods that are generally regarded as safe.

Could it be that these professors know more about nutritional science than the presenter of “Operation Ouch!”? No chance, says van Tulleken. He explains that four out of the five scientists have received funding from the food industry — and so has the Science Media Centre (although the amounts are quite small). “Industry funding creates bias”, he adds, “which we might call corruption.” This has become his standard response to all evidence and arguments that contradict him. “Industry-funded scientists” are not just mistaken but are corrupt. When they speak, they are not offering their own opinion but are parroting whatever Big Food told them to say. As a result, they should somehow be “rigorously excluded” from the “public debate”.

There is nothing unusual about food scientists working for the food industry. They are food scientists, after all. They can’t all work for the government (and working for the government creates its own biases). If you want to play the man rather than the ball, there are plenty of scientists in the field of nutrition to go after, but it’s not really an argument, is it? And what about the experts who have never had funding from the food industry? At the Science Media Centre event, Professor Robin May pointed out that ultra-processed baby formula is “live saving”, that vitamins and minerals are a “big benefit” of ultra-processed breakfast cereals and that additives and preservatives have “a really critical role to play in protecting consumers”. On the UPF panic in general, he said that it is “really important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Van Tulleken admits that May has no conflicts of interest, so how does he explain his scepticism? He doesn’t, nor does he respond to the points he made. Instead he grumbles in a footnote that “I don’t understand why he decided to share a platform with those who [have received industry funding]”. It is a shame van Tulleken didn’t give this more thought because he might have slowly realised that genuine disagreement exists when controversial hypotheses are proposed and they cannot all be dismissed with ad hominem arguments. 

Van Tulleken does not only judge people by the motivations they are presumed to have. He also judges food by the supposed motives of the people who make it. In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the new chapter we find the following enquiry:

If you cook at home with xanthan gum, are you making UPF?

I am surprised that this question is frequently asked but I suppose Chris and I move in different circles. I am even more surprised by the answer:

No. UPF is industrially produced for profit. This is part of the definition. If you make food because you love someone and you want to nourish them, then you’re not ultra-processing.

Earlier in the book, van Tulleken describes xanthan gum as “revoltingly, a bacterial exudate: slime that bacteria produce to allow them to cling to surfaces” and suggests that consuming it may have “profound effects on immune system development”. How fortunate, then, that there is an ingredient that acts as an antidote to this “disgusting” emulsifier. The name of that ingredient? Love. 

This raises more questions than it answers. What if you ultra-process food for someone you love but make a profit? What if you ultra-process food for someone you hate but give it to them for free?

On the face of it, a vibes-based food classification system does not sound very scientific, and van Tulleken’s definition of UPF is becoming more and more flexible; literally, a moveable feast. In an interview with the Observer published yesterday, he took a journalist to his local Italian restaurant for pizza and ice cream. If pizza and ice cream sound like a strange choice for a diet guru, rest assured that they had “proper homemade pizza” which, unlike the UPF equivalent, is “very healthy” and the ice cream was “homemade gelato”. Were they significantly different from what you get in Pizza Express on a nutritional level? Does food made in a restaurant even count as homemade? Not normally, but the owner of this restaurant “grew up nearby” and van Tulleken “lives around the corner” so different rules apply. The pizzas might be £17 but the owners are not driven by the coarse materialism and boundless greed that motivates nutritional scientists. As van Tulleken explains, “a restaurant should never be just a way of extracting money in exchange for nutrition”. 

Many people have detected an element of snobbery about the whole anti-UPF thing, with its obsession with sourdough bread and its ad hoc exemptions for love-based food. Van Tulleken does not deny that it costs more to eat what he calls “real food” than to eat what most people call normal food, but he says in the paperback that the simple solution to this is to “end poverty” (why has no one thought of that before?). Pressed by the Observer journalist on the question of whether the UPF panic is little more than a status-signalling fad for the more gullible elements of the upper-middle class (my words, not his), his response was not unpredictable. The “snobbery argument” was, he said, “industrially generated” by vested interests. Of course!

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