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Ultra-processed fools

More misinformation about so-called UPFs

The stupidest article of the week award once again goes to the Guardian newspaper for this incredible effort. It centres around the idea that one in seven people are “addicted to ultra-processed foods” (UPFs). The author then approaches Chris van Tulleken, the author of Ultra-Processed People, for galaxy brain takes such as this…

“I totally agree that food is not addictive,” he says. “But UPF is not really food. The purpose of food is to provide nourishment. UPF’s primary purpose is profit and financial growth.”

Correctly noting that foods which combine fat and sugar are delicious, the author singles out biscuits as being particularly addictive, but only if you don’t make them yourself. She writes:

Homemade biscuits contain butter and sugar (AKA fat and carbs), but most people won’t eat a whole batch in one go. With a packet of ultra-processed cookies, though, it can be hard to stop.

I mean, what?! Has she never made biscuits at home? Has she never lived with someone who makes biscuits? Homemade biscuits are incredibly moreish! They are warm and soft and full of sugar — all the things that supposedly make UPFs “hyper-palatable”.

Despite homemade biscuits and “ultra-processed cookies” being nutritionally identical for all intents and purposes, the anti-UPF mob have to make this spurious distinction to maintain the ludicrous conceit that high calorie food is only fattening if it is made in a factory. Desperate to draw a parallel with tobacco, we are told that “packaged biscuits are similar to cigarettes”. How so? The answer, it turns out, is that they are both made by machines! But the similarities don’t end there. UPFs also cause dopamine to be released in the body, and these dopamine spikes (which are “similar to those caused by alcohol and nicotine”) make people feel good. It is not obvious why feeling good is bad, nor does the author appear to understand that there are sound evolutionary reasons why eating food activates the brain’s reward centres, an effect that is not confined to “ultra-processed” food.

What about the headline claim that one in seven of us are hooked on UPFs? The Guardian article explains:

An analysis of 281 studies in 36 countries by scientists from the US, Spain and Brazil, published in the BMJ, found that 14% of adults and 12% of children have a food addiction, and the food they are addicted to is ultra-processed.

The idea that these people are specifically addicted to UPFs is undermined later in the Guardian article when we are told that “a yet-to-be-published study of 400 eating disorders” found that only “5-6% of patients reported overeating only UPFs”. Furthermore, the BMJ article is not a new analysis. It is a glorified op-ed. It cites two meta-analyses (studies of studies), one of which looked at the prevalence of food addiction among adults while the other looked at the prevalence of food addiction among children. Neither of the studies looked at what kind of food is eaten by “food addicts”. Ultra-processed food is only briefly mentioned in the discussion section of one of them and isn’t mentioned at all in the other. The surveys used to diagnose food addiction do not mention ultra-processed food and most of them were conducted before the concept of ultra-processed food caught hold of the public imagination.

Even the authors of the BMJ article do not claim that one in seven people are addicted to UPFs. They merely argue that “foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are a strong candidate for an addictive substance” and that UPFs are a “major source of refined carbohydrates and added fats”. They go on to argue that “despite the uncertainty, classifying foods as addictive could stimulate research and shift attitudes to regulation” but this seems more of a political stance than a scientific one.

The “one in seven” claim is an empty factoid based on nothing

Although the authors of the BMJ article did not claim that one in seven people are addicted to UPFs, a list of “key messages” published alongside the article includes the claim that: “Ultra-processed food addiction is estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children”. This was presumably added by a sub-editor and is baseless, although that didn’t stop the Guardian, ITV and other media outlets reporting it as fact on Tuesday when the BMJ “study” was published. Several newspapers also reported that the authors had called for warning labels on UPFs to inform consumers that they are “addictive”. The authors didn’t say that either.

Food addiction is a genuine mental disorder and there is no reason to doubt the prevalence estimates in the two meta-analyses — although, interestingly, they find only a weak correlation between food addiction and obesity. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the claim that 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children are addicted to ultra-processed food in particular. The “one in seven” claim is an empty factoid based on nothing and is therefore certain to become the conventional wisdom very soon.

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