‘Makes me so angry’: Hackney author Dr Chris van Tulleken lifts lid on ultra-processed foods in bestselling book

Author and doctor Chris van Tulleken. Photogaph: Jonny Story

In the last few years, more and more research has blamed ultra-processed food (UPF) for contributing to health issues like diabetes and mental health disorders.

One of those pushing for change is Hackney doctor Chris van Tulleken, who recently visited De Beauvoir to discuss his new book, Ultra-Processed People.

The New York Times bestseller reveals some of the shocking secrets behind the foods that constitute much of our diets.

Van Tulleken was researching infant formula and obesity when he was struck by the negative effects of UPF.

He said: “When I spoke to people who who were not funded by the food industry, they told me obesity is not to do with inactivity, it is only to do with food, and all to do with ultra-processed food.”

His book contains a lot to feel enraged about, such as profit taking priority over health, misinformation, and so much more.

Van Tulleken helps to bust the problematic shaming of people who suffer from obesity and makes it clear who the finger should be pointed at.

His angle is that we are all addicts of UPFs because, in line with the definition of addiction, we eat them despite knowing they harm us.

He told the Citizen: “We can do MRI scans which show that all the same bits of the brain light up with UPF as they do with cocaine.”

One of the reasons these foods are so addictive is the density of calories in them, masked by unnaturally high levels of sugar and salt.

Van Tulleken said: “One thing we know about addictive substances is the rate of consumption is crucial.

“Indigenous Indians in North America used to chew tobacco leaf and didn’t get addicted to it, but when you make this into a cigarette, the delivery is instant and becomes addictive.

“Similarly, with ultra-processed food, the calorific reward is very quick compared to real foods.

“And once the sugar is in the gut, you get this huge rush and that’s what you get addicted to.

“If you look at a fizzy drink, there is so much sugar it would be impossible to drink if it wasn’t for the acid.”

The book doesn’t shy away from gruesome details about how additives and quantities are designed and adjusted to make you eat more.

In fact, van Tulleken advises readers to eat UPFs as they digest his book to help them rewire their approach.

He said: “I worked hard on the aversion therapy aspect of the book. Most people who have read it and done this have come to me and said they can’t eat their favourite UPF anymore.”

But the doctor said there is no intention to shame anyone for their food habits.

“There’s no judgement of any kind,” he adds. “I don’t accept that everyone should lose weight – they should if they want to. But in my opinion the only effective way to do this is to almost entirely stop eating ultra-processed foods.

“People don’t need telling off. They need the food environment to change.

“I want people to have choice and we need to stop shaming people with excess weight.”

Van Tulleken highlights studies that show UPF food is twice as cheap as whole food, so some people have no choice but to have a high-UPF diet.

He said: “We need to make real food affordable and change institutional food in hospitals, schools and prisons.”

The book is not overly peppered with scientific jargon in favour of accessibility.

It is interesting, for example, to get a clear explainer on how economic and social forces have taken us from processing, which is essentially cooking or pasteurising, to the ultra-processing of today.

And van Tulleken reveals just how extreme a position we are in.

Companies are using psychological tricks to encourage addiction, going beyond mere recipe tweaks.

Test after test is carried out to create the perfect texture for a crisp packet or the most inviting can-opening sound.

This need to drive addiction is largely down to business models that require annual or quarterly growth for investors.

Van Tulleken explains how food companies experiment with recipes to find the one that can be eaten in the largest quantities, and then they improve the addictive quality of it each year.

“Many of our breakfast cereals are four or five decades old, and each year they have been made a little more ‘delicious’.”

He is calling for clearer messaging on the health risks of these products.

Current UK policy allows for some fizzy, caffeinated drinks to have green lights on their packaging to signify health benefits, when they may actually increase the risk of diabetes and osteoporosis.

Van Tulleken said: “It is proven that people respond to warning labels. What people need is absolute clarity buying food, because what we have now is great clarity about what food is driving diet-related disease.

“The government allows companies to market this food and sell it aggressively to children and say on the other hand, ‘Stop your children gaining weight’. It makes me so angry. It’s disgusting.”

He says he is optimistic for some sort of regulation on UPFs. People are feeling the benefits of cutting down on them and are sick of seeing children taken in by cereals because of bright advertising and playful characters.

However, it’s a challenge to get the government to reign in an industry.

The book shines a light on the murky forces and conflicts of interest at play when it comes to health information.

Almost all charities advising the government on food are funded by big UPF companies.

Van Tulleken includes an interesting chapter on firms producing research to suit a narrative that obesity is linked to inactivity rather than UPF.

It is disassociating to read how normal it is for biased studies to be swallowed by society because no-one reads the small print or peeks behind the curtain.

The last few years have given us a few books showing how our society is robbing us of our essential needs.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and Chasing the Sun by Linda Geddes highlight crises in other aspects of our lives.

All of this can feel overwhelming, but let’s remember we can only do as best as our busy lives allow.

What’s fantastic about Ultra-Processed People is the power it gives the reader through knowledge.

Thanks to van Tulleken, I will forever be taking the claims of food companies with a heavy pinch of salt – metaphorically, of course.