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Business News/ Science / Health/  Confronting the dangers of ultra-processed food
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A cocktail of additives and preservatives poses a risk to people’s health

A pizza made from scratch contains minimally processed food. The one in the freezer is ultra-processed foodPremium
A pizza made from scratch contains minimally processed food. The one in the freezer is ultra-processed food

Which is healthier: a bag of crisps or a kale salad? That is easy. Now which is healthier: a pizza made from scratch or one made from the same basic ingredients, with the same number of calories, pulled out of a box in the freezer?

Many people concerned with what they eat would instinctively say the former, perhaps citing a vague concern with “processed food". Such food can often be delicious. (This columnist has a particular weakness for salty potato crisps.) And there is much to cheer about calories being cheap and abundant, when for most of human history they were neither. But as Chris van Tulleken’s new book, “Ultra-Processed People", explains, that cheapness and abundance come at a cost.

Mr van Tulleken, a doctor and television presenter, draws a distinction between “ultra-processed food" (UPF) and “processed food". Almost everything people consume is processed in some form: rice is harvested and hulled, animals are butchered. He uses a definition proposed by Carlos Monteiro, a food scientist, describing UPF as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology". A pizza made from scratch contains minimally processed food (wheat turned into flour, tomatoes into sauce, milk into cheese). The one in the freezer, with its thiamine mononitrate and sodium phosphate, is UPF.

The cocktail of additives and preservatives in UPF harm people in ways both known and unknown. It seems to affect the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that contribute to health in a range of ways. Calorie-rich but usually nutrient-poor, UPF contributes to obesity in part because its palatability and soft texture foster overconsumption, overriding satiety signals from the brain.

Because this frankenfood is cheap to produce and buy, UPF displaces healthier alternatives, particularly for poor people. Extra weight was once a sign of wealth, but among British and American women today, obesity rates are higher at lower-income levels. (Curiously, rates do not vary for men, even though a greater share of American men than women are obese.)

The reasons why UPF can be harmful are not always clear, even to scientists. Additives that may be safe in isolation or small quantities may be harmful in combination with other chemicals or when consumed regularly. If we are what we eat, considering the impact of UPF is essential, but too often Mr van Tulleken’s case for clean food is accompanied by anti-capitalist preening: for instance, he nonsensically calls corporate-tax minimisation “part of ultra-processing".

Environment matters, too. People who live in what the author calls “food swamps", where “UPF is everywhere but real food is harder to reach", could spend large amounts of time and money seeking out fresh food, but that is not how most people live. There is nothing wrong with the odd fast-food trip, but anyone who can afford to eat less UPF probably should.

Read more from World in a dish, our column on food: 

When it comes to ice cream, the instinct to innovate is misguided (Jul 13th) 

The curious, anaesthetising charm of Sichuan peppers (June 29th) 

A potato can have no finer fate than ending up as an Irish crisp (June 15th)

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© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Published: 25 Sep 2023, 05:07 PM IST
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