Ultra-Processed People in an Ultra-Processed World

Yves here. Below is a continuation of KLG’s series: Science is not our friend, especially when it is not intended to be, which is often.The poor quality of the typical American diet is becoming a heath crisis, which also means to a degree a political football, with some of the arguably worst examples like super-sized sodas, coming under attack via sin taxes. Only recently have concerns about ultra-processed foods garnered mainstream media coverage. A complicating factor is varying definitions of what ultra-proceeded amounts to, accompanied by arguments that some ultra-processed items are not that bad.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

Our “Great American Food System” has become the problem it was meant to solve.  Rather than feeding the us with a healthy and sufficient diet, it is starving us of the good food we need to thrive as human beings, while producing highly marketable and profitable food-like substances that are, how shall we put it, problematic.  This is a truism among a comparative few, including Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Chris Smaje, [1] and an outrageous slander to the usual suspects, Big Ag and Big Food.  Nevertheless, recognition that the ultra-processed food-like substances (UPF) we eat are associated with, and likely the cause of, serious illness is being discussed, finally.  Here, for example, in the NC link from January that led me, as a tutor of medical students, to catch up in another attempt to more fully understand diet and health.

Other available references taking a serious view of the problem include US Policies Addressing Ultraprocessed Food, 1980-2022, published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine by a group of researchers led by Jennifer L. Pomeranz of NYU.  As might be expected, American “policymakers” have not done very much, but the 2025-2030 Advisory Committee on Dietary Guidelines is expected to take up the issue.  The successive Diet Pyramids associated with this task have not been very useful. Nevertheless, the early preemptory (they hope), responses from Big Ag/Big Food are predictable (perfect photograph of UPF at the link):

Frozen food makers and the meat industry…speaking to a panel of nutrition experts tasked by the federal government with advising on the next round of the national dietary guidelines, raised concerns with its focus on that fare.  So too did a coalition that includes the bakery, candy, corn syrup, and sugar lobbies, and the Consumer Brands Association, which includes General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Hostess…the North American Meat Institute, which represents companies like Hormel and Johnsonville, said Tuesday that ‘the scientific evaluation of the role of ultra-processed foods in health outcomes is premature’ and that ‘classifying foods as ultra-processed oversimplifies the complex issue and is not appropriate for the dietary guidelines…Food processing can provide benefits to products including food safety and security, improved nutrition, reducing food waste, permitting food diversity, and offering convenience and affordability,’ said Allison Cooke, a vice president at the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of corn syrup and other corn products.  Cooke was representing the food coalition, the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance, which the corn refiners group chairs. (emphasis added)

Regarding affordability, the CEO of Kellogg’s recently made his case to inflation-challenged families: “Cereal, it’s what’s for dinner!” (a somewhat tiresome CNBC video, 3:53 after obligatory ad; watch on 2x).  Nothing said about nutrition, nor would that be expected.  For those who do not watch American television, compare with this from 2000, featuring Sam Elliott and Aaron Copland.  That meal looks quite good and nourishing, with beef or chicken.

What are ultra-processed foods (UPF) using the NOVA classification system (pdf)?  A simplified Table 1 is derived from Pomeranz et al:

This makes both intuitive and scientific sense.  And it stands to reason after minimal consideration that a diet comprising NOVA Groups 1, 2, and 3 it will be a healthy diet.  This case has been made very well in Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food (Norton, 2023), which will be our guide.  The author Chris van Tulleken has a PhD in Molecular Virology and a medical degree (MBBS: Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery).  He is currently a practicing physician in infectious disease in London and a well-known, award-winning presenter on British television.

He has also written a very good book about a most important topic, one that begins with the perfect vignette: “Every Wednesday afternoon in the laboratory where I used to work, we had an event called journal club…”  The word ‘club’ is a misnomer; this is not fun.  However, it is how one learns to think about science and do be a good scientist.  In my long experience those who participate in a Journal Club become good scientists or find another life.  How it works: The speaker of the day picks a topic, usually based on one or two recent publications.  If the papers are as good as expected, everyone learns something.  If the papers are not as good as expected, everyone learns even more, including the presenter.  After getting ripped to shreds – clubbed – once or twice in the “critical but supportive environment” (that’s what I tell my students) the graduate student, postdoc, or even professor learns how to read and interpret the scientific literature beyond the Abstract and Summary paragraphs.  No, Journal Club is not fun, but it is rewarding.  And essential.  As we have come to learn in the current scientific world, the details always matter.  Everyone gets it wrong sometime, but those who have been challenged at every step of the way, from apprentice to independent scientist, get it wrong a lot less often.  This is something we have largely lost, and it shows.  Chris van Tulleken proceeds with his exposition much as he would in his old Journal Club, and his readers are the better off for this.

The most important attribute of a popular book that covers something as important as UPF and their effects on us is how close the book follows the primary literature.  Although no one can cover everything, Ultra-Processed People does very well from the beginning.  Others who have done well on food, diet, nutrition, and health include Gary Taubes(something of a lightning rod).  But his The Case Against Sugar and Good Calories, Bad Calories are very good; I have just begun to read his Rethinking Diabetes, and it looks quite promising.  Michael Moss, whose Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us was one of the earliest full-length treatments of the “food science” and “bliss point” essential to UPF, is also very good.  Taubes and Moss are reporters who get it right.  The physician Siddhartha Mukherjee is very good for the serious reader on cancer, the gene, and the cell, all relevant to what is covered here.  Nick Lane is a biochemist who is always engaging about essentials.  Each is a worthy successor to Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas.

In the spirit of a Journal Club, it is my view that van Tulleken slightly misses the mark on the harm done by sugar, as covered extensively by Taubes (graciously acknowledged in the book), Robert Lustig, and the earlier, foundational work of John Yudkin.  I personally anticipate that the damage done by excessive levels of dietary fructose will eventually be identified.  Although UPF are clearly deleterious to human health, this is also because of manipulation of salt and sugar and fat, the latter in forms that are novel components of the human diet (e.g., palm oil, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, dimethylpolysiloxane, which is something that should never be consumed).  There is probably no way to tease apart these strands, but high glucose/sugar means high insulin.  Insulin is our primary anabolic hormone and the natural response to a high carbohydrate diet is to store that potential energy as fat.  For the past 50 years fat and protein calories in the American diet have been replaced by carbohydrates.  This has led to the obesity epidemic associated with metabolic syndrome.  Persistently elevated insulin will lead to insulin insensitivity manifested in Type-2 diabetes.  Type-1 diabetes is due to insulin insufficiency caused by autoimmune obliteration of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Ultra-Processed People begins with two fundamental papers that frame his thesis.  The first is the original publication from Carlos Augusto Monteiro and coworkers from Brazil, in which ultra-processed food (UPF) was defined: A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing (pdf). This comes directly out of recognition of the damage UPF does, for example, in the form of the Nestlé [2] Floating Supermarket:

Nestlé Até Vocâ a Bordo (Nestlé Takes You Onboard) was a huge floating supermarket staffed by eleven people, which would leave from Belém…and travel hundreds of miles upriver, serving 800,000 people in remote Amazonian communities.  According to the press release, ‘Nestlé aims at developing another trading channel which offers access to nutrition, health and wellbeing to the remote communities of the north region’…On the day that press release was issued, Nestle’s website claimed: ‘Our core aim is to enhance the quality of consumers’ (keyword) lives every day, everywhere by offering tastier and healthier food and beverage choices and encouraging a healthy lifestyle.’ (emphasis added)

So, what happened in these communities?  The first thing was that sales of the Nestlé UPF brought prices down under the aggregate prices of the local market.  These low prices made life harder (impossible) for local traders of whole foods, and the shop on the boat “went from being  a luxury to an essential service.”  Normal business practice for a transnational corporation: Undersell the locals until they disappear and then reap the “benefits” as the essential supplier.  Paula Costa Ferriera (a local teacher in Muaná, an Amazonian community served by the floating supermarket) went on to tell van Tulleken about several local children with Type-2 diabetes, where there should be no children with this diet-related disease.  There is no “evidence that there were children with diet-related diabetes in these parts of Brazil until enterprises like the Nestle boat.”

And “Everyone, from the shopkeepers (and) teachers and the people working for the NGOs agrees: It all started with the boat.  Almost everyone we met…was living with obesity.”  Where have we seen this before?  In the food deserts of North America, which are common in small and large, rural and urban communities throughout the United States [3].  But not only in food deserts.  Just look around, and compare the prosperous suburban American with the citizens of France, Italy, and Spain.  Or to the average American of 1967, before UPF were so widely marketed and consumed.  No, correlation is not causation, but if there is a plausible mechanism connecting the correlative values, a mechanism is likely to be lurking nearby.

The second scientific paper is Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: An inpatient randomized control trial of ad libitum food intake (pdf) by Kevin D. Hall at the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and associates, most of whom are also at NIH.  A graphical abstract of the paper is presented below.  In brief, ten (10) adults were given a diet of unprocessed food and ten (10) others were given a diet of UPF and were followed for two weeks.  Each subject could eat as much or as little as desired (ad libitum).  The two main results were: (1) those on the UPF diet consumed about 500 more calories per day than those on the unprocessed diet, and (2) those on the UPF diet gained weight while those on the unprocessed diet lost weight.  These results stand out, but this is also a short experiment  with only 20 subjects.  A letter in the same issue of Cell Metabolism (Ultra-processed Food and Obesity: The Pitfalls of Extrapolation from Short Studies) raises several points worth considering, including the size of this trial and its duration.  Deficiencies in random controlled clinical trials (RCT) have been discussed here often.  But in this case, the original result from 2019 has apparently held up well and is supported throughout Ultra-Processed People.  Small experiments and RCTs, well designed and conducted with no outside influence, are often very useful as scientific products in the tangle of science as defined by Nancy Cartwright and others, discussed here previously.  The size of the trial or the experiment is not necessarily relevant to  the validity of the result [4].

One example: Why do people eat more UPF than real food?  A calorie is not a calorie except in a bomb calorimeter.  Without going into detail, where I would hang by my fingertips, the thermodynamics of nutrition is not path independent.  What you eat matters along with how many calories.  This is covered in Chapter 11, UPF is pre-chewed.  This is frankly a gross concept, but it explains much about the allure of UPF.  As noted by Anthony Fardet of the Human Nutrition Unit at Université Clermont Auvergne, the ‘food matrix’ – the physical structure of food – matters in the human diet.  As an example, an apple is a normal component of the human diet.  Apple juice, not so much.  The body’s responses to an apple, apple juice, and apple puree are not equivalent.  Blood sugar and insulin spike higher with the apple juice and puree than the apple, followed by a crash.  Or, “Our bodies have evolved to manage the sugar load from an apple precisely, but fruit juice is a relatively new invention.”  Yes, “an apple a day may keep the doctor away.” A diet filled with sugar-laden fruit juice or its ultra-processed equivalent containing high-fructose corn syrup likely will not.  Same for a diet of UPF.

An early example in the book recounts a breakfast scene with Lyra, van Tulleken’s young daughter, by comparing a McDonald’s hamburger to her Coco Pops (Cocoa Krispies in the US, i.e., chocolate-flavored Rice Krispies, which I remember well, along with what were called Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Crisp in the 1960s).  The McDonald’s hamburger is designed to be soft, creamy, spongy, salty, and to be eaten in as little as a minute, too fast for satiety mechanisms to respond.  So, you eat another.  And the super-size order of fries to go along with the 32-ounce soft drink or “shake” (no milk included?) and maybe the ersatz ice cream.  Same with Coco Pops, which are soft, sweet, easily digested.  That is, essentially pre-chewed.  They are designed to eaten quickly without time to send the signal to the brain that you are full and it’s time to stop eating.  This is probably the main reason the UPF subjects in the RCT/experiment directed by Kevin Hall at NIH consumed 500 more calories per day than those on the unprocessed diet.  It takes “work” to eat real food, and this also has consequences.  Those who eat whole food have stronger jaw muscles and longer jaws than those who do not.  A diet of UPF keeps general dentists, orthodontists, and endodontists busy.

UPF is designed to be overconsumed (Chapter 18).  A summary on the science of UPF and the human body:

  • Destruction of the food matrix by physical, chemical, and thermal processing softens UPF so that they are eaten fast, with the consumption of more calories per minute without feeling satiated.
  • UPF generally have a high calorie density because they are dry, high in fat and sugar, and low in fiber, which means more calories per mouthful.
  • UPF displace diverse whole foods in the diet, especially among low-income groups (UPF is cheap at the cash register but only there) and are often micronutrient-deficient despite the normal load of additives. The proper measures of a diet lie in food, not in the individual chemical compounds and minerals that are essential for life.  These are often not particularly useful in any case.  Fish is good if it is not farmed or loaded with mercury.  Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) in capsules from the supplement store, not so much.
  • The mismatch between taste signals and nutrition content of UPF alter metabolism by mechanisms not completely understood, but the obesity epidemic of the past 50 years is clear indication this happens. Artificial sweeteners may have a role in this.
  • UPF are designed essentially to be addictive, so binges are unavoidable. See Sugar Salt Fat. How many of us have consumed, not eaten, an entire bag of potato chips or a tube of Thin Mints at one sitting?
  • The emulsifiers, preservatives, modified starches, and other additives are likely to damage the gut microbiome. The microbiome is relatively new to biomedical science, slowly coming into focus in the past fifteen years, but it clearly has broad effects on human health from the brain to the heart.  The ostensibly harmless additives to UPF are likely to dysregulate the gut microbiome and lead to inflammation.  Chronic inflammation, a concomitant of obesity, is a risk factor for cancer and a host of other diseases.
  • Convenience, price, and marketing of UPF are intentionally designed to prompt us to eat recreationally. Snack, snack, snack.
  • Additives and physical processing required for the palatability of UPF dysregulate our satiety system. Other additives probably affect brain and endocrine function.  Plastics are essential to the marketing of UPF and are another negative externality altogether.
  • The production of UPF requires expensive subsidies (i.e., negative externalities associated with Big Ag production of GMO corn and soybean as commodity crops) that lead to environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. This includes damage to the human and built environment of rural areas and chemical pollution caused by runoff of pesticides, herbicides, nitrogen, and phosphorous.  The dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River is the most glaring example of the latter.

Where do we go from here?  Modern obesity is clearly a commerciogenic disease resulting in a particularly insidious form of malnutrition.  In the US, the FDA and USDA might act, but regulatory capture makes this unlikely.  The medical profession is the one profession that could act and gain traction.  Maybe it will.  But there is too much money to be made from UPF as a product of Big Food, Big Ag, and industrial agriculture, which makes hope something of a dream.  Countries with a still healthy food culture could show the way forward is actually to look to the past.  Although commerciogenic obesity is a multifactorial problem, it may be no accident that life expectancy in these countries, France, Spain, and Italy, for example, is higher than in the US, before and after the pandemic dip.

It has been said that no one can save the world.  True.  But each of us can save the world one person, one family, one local economy, one at a time.  We should once again eat where we live and live where we eat.  The world will get smaller in the coming inconvenient apocalypse.  We will have no choice but to take care of ourselves locally.  We can do this work well or not at all.  Our decision, but ultra-processing in all its guises will not be part of the solution.  And the food will taste better.

Coda.  Last week I was alone at home and grazing healthily, or so I thought.  Raw vegetables and fizzy water, cheese, and non-industrial sourdough bread.  The broccoli was good, dipped lightly in the “natural” ranch dressing I had purchased the day before.  I had already planned this essay, so I began to wonder what I was eating.  This made me look at the label.  Ha!  My UPF natural ranch dressing is compared below with ranch dressing made from scratch (Table 2).

Escape is difficult.  The UPF “nonfat” buttermilk on the left isn’t.  Ditto for the sour cream.  Who knows what the natural flavors and spices are?  But the UPF product lasts a very long time, which is the point.  Next time I will take the one on the right and leave the UPF behind.  I am fortunate to be able to do so.  The price will not be higher, except in time and convenience, and I am fortunate that the latter are possible for me.  As Ultra-Processed People concludes: The goal should be that we live in a world where we have real choices about what we eat and the freedom to make them.  Yes, that would be a good start, one meal at a time.



[1] Wendell Berry is a constant in this series.  Wes Jackson and Chris Smaje have figured in two previous posts.  Smaje recently published an excellent essay on his argument with George Monbiot on the nature of food and farming at Front Porch Republic, which could use a bit more serious Left Conservatism in its content, such as their special issue of Local Culture on the life and work of Christopher Lasch (pdf).

[2] Virtually every product sold by Nestlé is UPF, including baby formula.  In the 1970s Nestlé sent saleswomen dressed to resemble nurses to what were at the time called “third world” countries to hawk its powdered baby formula (UPF) as a better alternative to breast feeding.  New mothers were frequently given free formula immediately after birth, which often foreclosed breast feeding as a subsequent option.  In places where the safety of drinking water could be in question, especially for infants, the consequences were predictable.  More recently Nestle has gone all-in on bottled water, which was a very early indicator to me that we were completely losing the plot, while filling the world with plastic waste.

[3] I remember well an outright confrontation with a first-year medical student during a biochemistry group tutorial when the socio- and commerciogenic nature of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and Type-2 diabetes came up during discussion.  He replied that “it didn’t matter what you tell these people, they won’t listen.”  He learned about food deserts on the spot, some of which are in easy walking distance of where we sat at that moment, places where the only sources of “food” are “convenience stores” that sell soft drinks, potato chips, candy, beer, cigarettes, and lottery tickets in a city with a severe maldistribution of legitimate grocery stores and barely functioning public transit.

[4] I have repeatedly mentioned in this series that a scientific paper has not been read and understood absent an appreciation of who/what supported the work.  Acknowledgment from the Hall paper: “This work was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  We thank the nursing and nutrition staff at the NIH MCRU for their invaluable assistance with this study.  We also thank Ms. Shavonne Pocock for taking the photos of the study diets.  We are most thankful to the study subjects who volunteered to participate in this demanding protocol.”  Acknowledgment from the “Pitfalls” letter: “D.S.L. received royalties for books on obesity and nutrition that recommend a reduced glycemic load diet. A.A. is recipient of honoraria as speaker for a wide range of Danish and international concerns, and receives royalties from popular diet and cookery books on low glycemic load and personalized diets.  S.B.H. is a member of the MedifastMedical Advisory Board.  W.C.W. received royalties for books on nutrition and obesity.  The other authors have no disclosures.  This work was done without financial sponsorship.”  I have not delved into Optavia, which is apparently the primary product/service of Medifast, Inc.

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  1. CanCyn

    Thanks once again KLG. Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories was my wake up call, about not only sugar, it also enlightened me about the politics and profiteering that have turned science away from helping us and toward instead helping neoliberal pocketbooks. As a librarian, I learned about so called ‘citation societies’ during my studies. ‘You cite me and I’ll cite you’ deals appalled me at the time even though they seemed quite taken for granted. (For those who don’t know, the number of times a researcher is cited by others is part of the metric system that adds to their prestige when being considered for grants, academic promotion, etc.) But until I read Taubes, I didn’t know about prominent scientists like Ansel Keys who stick to their theories long after they were proven incorrect – for reasons of ego, politics and profit. In some ways I am still stunned by the lack of scientific method in science today.
    Otherwise, I admit to doubt that new nutrition guidelines will highlight the ills of UPFs. Those lobbies are strong. But with articles like this I can hope.

  2. zagonostra

    I was bitching to my sister who lives in Italy that ever time I pick up a desert on the grocery shelf that has “made in Italy” it contains palm oil. I mentioned a couple of products and she said that that is not the case for the same product on the shelf there.

    Also, I recall reading that GMO products are illegal in Russia. It is definitely challenging to eat healthy, even when your dipping your raw vegetables in ranch dressing…

  3. Koldmilk

    It’s not only human food.

    The one that makes me angry is over-priced, so-called science diet, dry pet food. Made from grains, designed to be highly palatable, ie addictive, it has caused an increase in ill health. I had a chat with a retired veterinarian, who commented that tooth decay was not a problem when he started his practice, but since the introduction of dry pet food, it’s now common for dogs and cats to have rotten teeth before old age. Dental work, from annual cleaning, to extractions and repair, are now the main income streams for vets, so they don’t seem to care enough to recommend natural food. There’s also the intensive marketing of these food-like substances through veterinary clinics, “only available from your vet”, with a business model too profitable for vets to ignore. Other ailments, especially diabetes and obesity, have increased. He commented that diabetes in his patients used to be limited to old ladies who fed their dogs or cats things like ice cream and cake. Now, it’s more wide-spread.

    1. The Rev Kev

      When our children were born, we did not feed then tinned baby food but blended up foods in a electric blender instead as we knew what we were actually feeding them. And we long ago gave up feeding our dogs from tin cans as there were too many scandals about them. These days I am not even sure how much of the foods we eat are actually food. Mentioned before how my daughter accidental left an open container of KFC mashed potato in the front yard. Instead of picking it up, I left it to see how long before the ants would clear it out. After a coupla days nada. It had not even deteriorated. So this told me that ants and even bacteria did not recognize that stuff as “food”. So what the hell was it?

    2. lyman alpha blob

      After dealing with some expensive medical issues including diabetes with a cat fed on dry food, I learned that a lot of the dry kibble sold in your average grocery store contains mostly grain filler, and cats are not vegetarians. We now feed them only wet food that’s mostly meat.

      Our younger cat who’s less than two already has bad teeth though, despite not being fed much kibble. The only dry food I give them is because it’s supposed to keep their teeth clean! Really wish I could figure this out, because the dental bills for the cat cost more than my own dental bills…

      1. Pat

        I can’t speak to the teeth issue. But something I think I should add is that there is NO dry food that diabetic cats should eat, and not surprisingly that includes the diabetic formulas from so-called healthy brands like Hills and Science Diet. Along with that are the majority of canned cat foods. As Lyman says they need to be mostly meat, but you have to really watch because even if meat is the first thing in the ingredients list there can be a surprising amount of carbohydrates in the filler and the “gravy”. At one point I had a whole list of most major cat foods and their flavors. At most a fifth of them were safe for my late sugar adjacent kitty to consume. The rest were guaranteed to spike his levels. (He didn’t react well to the insulin my vet prescribed, so I worked very hard to be able to manage his blood sugar with food alone for the eight years he lived after his diagnosis.)

        1. Unfinished

          We had tremendous results with 2 generations of cats (each reaching 19 y.o.) by avoiding all kibble and sticking to mostly-meat canned food and raw chicken wings halves as a chews/floss. We would rinse the wings off well and after we learned to make our own hypochlorous acid we’d rinse them in that. Regardless, cats loved them, maintained excellent dental (and general) health from that point on, and we never had any food hygiene issues.

          1. MFB

            A large part of the dry cat-food we give our cats is an ingredient called “ash”.

            I have been told it is actually dried deflavoured excrement from battery chicken farms.

    3. Alex Cox

      We feed our dogs a mixture of dry food and food we cook: 1 third oatmeal, 1 third meat, 1 third greens. They like it and do not have tooth issues. The recipe is in the book Jam Today.

    4. Michael McK

      I took my Mom’s 17 year old cat to the vet recently and was told she had the best teeth the vet had ever seen in an old cat. “Like a 5 year old’s” She eats only Purina kibble. I am sure a much more wholesome kibble could be made but the scraping action of kibble seems to act like brushing.
      My dog had an intestinal cancer and was given only a month to live but that sad news came with a diet recommendation. I made big batches of stock, pumpkin, rolled oats and kelp powder to which I added about 1/3 fresh meat when I served it. She lived a whole year with good quality of life until the cancer spread to her lungs..

    5. playon

      We feed our small cat dry food from Costco that has no grain in it (sweet potato is substituted) which is guaranteed at least 30% protein. We augment that with raw chicken livers which the cat loves, we sprinkle some brewers yeast on the dry food and a little lysine on the livers. The cat is only 2.5 years old but seems very healthy and has a shiny coat. Hopefully dental issues will not be a problem in the future. I’m convinced that the added chicken livers are very beneficial, and they are cheaper than wet cat food.

  4. lyman alpha blob

    Even the “from scratch” recipe could be problematic unless you make the mayo yourself, too. I noticed recently that Hellman’s mayo seemed to taste a bit different and maybe a little more watery. Looked it up, and it turns out they switched to a different vegetable oil, likely a cheaper and lower quality one.

    1. Heather

      And not just the taste, lyman alpha blob. My beef is also with the amount of sugar put into so many processed foods, even mayonnaise. It’s why I have to make almost everything from scratch, at home, because of all the sugar. Sugar is not necessary in beef or chicken stock, yet it’s there! Even in the organic stuff. And they try to hide it by calling it “organic cane juice “ or some such. Give me a break!! And sugar is totally unnecessary in bread, yet it’s there, in large quantities. If you compare British or French or German or Italian homemade bread recipes with American bread recipes it’s really eye opening. I’m talking about a standard sandwich loaf, either white flour or whole wheat flour, doesn’t seem to matter. Not to mention the high fructose corn syrup in everything in the United States. Well, the food manufacturers are making money, money, money!!

      1. Revenant

        In the UK, we have the worst food in Europe by popular acclaim and yet I have to say, American food is *terrible*. I felt unwell after any extended stay in the US.

        You put sugar in bread! You don’t put sugar in soft drinks but high fructose corn syrup! Your chocolate is apparently made from sugar and powdered mud! Your beef is officially classified against criteria that are signs of metabolic dysregulation in cattle (visible fat marbling throughout the muscle) because you feed them on cereals rather than forage!

        We are food heathens compared to Italians but we look like paragons in comparison to the US….

        1. Paris

          English food is terrible too, don’t gang up on the Americans. Your beef is imported and is cereal fed too lol, what do you’re eating, grass fed beef? You pay a fortune on that, imported from Canada.

          1. Revenant

            I acknowledged our food’s terrible reputation at the outset.

            But we have great ingredients – the rest of Europe imports our fish and shellfish, we grow excellent salad crops (the largest summer salad growing area in Europe), good grains (except durum wheat, not hot enough) and good temperate fruit (long mild growing season, long northern days: the best berries come from Scotland for thus reason, hence the Tayberry). They even imported our beef until the little burst of madness….

            Anyway, retail beef in Britain is nearly all grass fed. We have extensive pastures and we do not grow soya or even much maize. You might find feedlot beef in burgers but I suspect it is cheap ranched beef from the Oampas or the Outback. You would be surprised how cheap good European meat is compared with poisoned US intensive meat.

  5. Hank Linderman

    I’m curious about soy milk – that would have to be at least processed if not ultra processed, right? “Impossible” and other fake meat would probably be ultra processed as well.

    Thank god for avocados, brown rice and beans.


    1. t

      Ultra ultra ultra processed. Soy as human food is a champion of marketing, second only to Canol.

      There used to be a PSA about wonderful soy beans being able to take nitrogen directly from the air. Which is kind of true if you leave soy beans growing for an extended time and certain aspects of the soil and native bacteria are suitable… but modern fields need butt tones of nitrogen fertilizer and kill topsoil as fast as anything.

    2. Martin Oline

      (Thanks to Yves for highlighting this article) I will add one thing about processed milk, I saw a video that recommended buying coconut milk in paper/foil type containers instead of cans. The woman said this packaging is used because the milk is processed at a lower temperature. I do not use it but my son does and he has not found it in stores yet. I know how to shred it and make my own but that’s another story. Back in the seventies it was (nutritionally) forbidden to use coconut milk. Then it became good and somewhat fashionable. It should be taboo again any day now.

      1. irenic

        No adult should drink milk(unless you like pus and bacteria!). I had adult acne until I was about 30-years-old. What happened was I was tired of the acne and read somewhere(I actually went to the library to read more on it, and except for the industry related publications, most were negative toward milk) that milk can be a contributing factor to acne so I stopped drinking store bought processed milk. Miraculously, after about a month or so of NO milk my acne cleared up and went away. I still eat cheese, butter and yogurt but 30 years later no milk(I do miss cereal with milk) and no acne!

        1. Martin Oline

          Good thing I’m a seventy year old child. Hope your bones last that long. PS You can use beer with cereal and coconut milk is made with water.

        2. Revenant

          We can all use some pus and bacteria in our diets. :-)

          More importantly, milk only contains bacterial and bovine cells if it is produced under conditions of stress, from animals with mastitis. These cows should not be in the parlour and a good dairyman would turn them away. Inspection for jnfectionis the last resort: cows should also be fed on grass, kept outdoors as much as possible, allowed two years between calves etc. to maximise their health.

          We were paid a premium on our milk cheque for a low cell count in our milk we produced.

        3. Ellery O'Farrell

          I mix cereal (unsweetened granola like Food for Life) and plain yogurt (regular, not Greek, which is too solid when mixed with cereal). And some blueberries.

          I don’t miss cereal with milk.

        4. Paris

          BS. You specifically had an issue with milk, the majority of people don’t. Milk is not ultra processed and is an excellent source of calcium. Hope you didn’t substitute it for OJ (pure sugar) lol.

      1. Jamie

        Thank-you for the link. Great article! I have missed rice, because of the arsenic issue. Looking forward to eating it, again.

      2. Paris

        Parboiled rice has less arsenic than wild, brown or regular white rice. There are papers about that, check it out.

  6. elissa3

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Michael Pollan and his Food Rules also has something to contribute, although I disagree with his bias towards vegetarianism. A revelatory moment for me was when I was 16, lazily browsing library magazines. There was (and is) a magazine called Food Engineering. Having been brought up on a farm for a few of my early years, I asked myself, ‘Why does food have to be engineered?’. If there is one ongoing epidemic that has resulted in the greatest misery and cultural destruction in the USA in my lifetime it is, without question, the obesity epidemic. How to reverse and undo all the damage of the insidious UPF dynamic is this country’s greatest challenge.

  7. ISL

    Extremely dense with excellent information. One quibble, Most doctors are no longer allowed to practice medicine in their HMO dictated, standards of care world, and there is much more money to be made from interminably treating incurable metabolic diseases than improving health to prevent them.

    After the travesty that was the medical industrial system’s response to covid19 – could not even recommend vitamin D! – my faith that the ultra processed food health/medical problem will be addressed by doctors is nil – any doctors that threaten the profits of big pharma will be canceled. We have seen that movie!

    How will any of these intractable problems be solved IMHO? The natural way. As in nature will solve the problem (to human disadvantage, but only humans believe evolution has a purpose and its purpose is humans). Certainly our slow cooking the global pot we live in is heading in that direction. Though humanity is working full time to press the accelerator – hint modern war releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

    Evolution and the ecosystem will work just fine without us to the benefit of the ants.

    Consider, could Russia have evolved to the fifth strongest economy in the world (first in Europe, today), without a collapse in the early 1990s? Well, China, did (after the Soviet example), so perhaps there is hope.

  8. LawnDart

    I greatly appreciate this article– thanks for running it. A reminder like this about the hazards of fake foods, food substitutes, and industrially-modified people-feed is useful in keeping one’s health at the forefront of one’s mind.

    At the present I am fortunate to have more time available for food-preparation than I’ve had throughout most of my life, which is freakin awesome, but this won’t last. In the meantime, I’m doing most of my cooking from scratch using whole ingredients, and after several months of this, I noticed a number of physical changes that I’m pleased with– from energy and quality of sleep to better skin and being more trim.

    As a follow-up, I’d really like to see another very-brief post about eating well when faced with time and budgetary-constraints, and to hear what tips or advice the commentariat has to offer on that subject. While I’m sure that 90% will be what “everyone already knows,” each of us might find something new, something useful to take away from it.

    1. Michael McK

      My go to quick cheap snack/meal is an apple or 2 with the fresh ground peanut butter from the grinder in the store. I know there are peanut aflatoxin risks and the unsaturated peanut oil may not be great but it is quick, easy and, when apples were in season and neighborhood trees were poorly utilized it was half free.
      I recently had some store bought “natural” peanut butter and while it was just peanuts the freshness of the store grinder product was far superior and the jarred stuff tasted rancid now that I was used to fresh.
      On a related note… I strongly recommend intermittent fasting. Among other benefits, the urge to snack on whatever is in front of you is greatly diminished.

    2. playon

      One way to eat well when time-constrained is to cook larger quantities, and then freeze them in 1 or 2 portion amounts. It’s great to have something home-cooked and tasty in the freezer when you’re in a hurry.

    3. Viv

      This is a very good point. We are deluged these days with bad news, and it feels almost too easy to report on how the world is going to end. While this article was extremely informative, it’s a typical here’s-the-bad-news-so-good-luck-with-all-that post. Given the prevalence of UPF, and the shortage of time in the typical US household (read: both parents working while shuffling your toddlers around), tips for avoiding UPF would be helpful.

  9. ChrisPacific

    Re: Journal Club

    I have performed this function before, somewhat informally, when I was a grad student. I ended up critiquing a couple of papers with a fellow student after he asked me to help him figure out some aspects he didn’t understand. I concluded that they had attempted to draw the shortest possible line between a problem with grant funding attached and their own pet research topic, by means of a number of assumptions that were questionable at best and outright wrong at worst.

    I corrected some of the assumptions to better match the problem statement and arrived at a somewhat different destination, which in turn got my fellow student quite interested – it was a new area of theory for him, but it had many connections to his own, and was mostly amenable to study using the tools he already had in his repertoire.

    So I would definitely agree on the value. It might not be fun, but it’s by doing the hard yards of mapping out the intellectual terrain in detail that opportunities become apparent.

  10. PlutoniumKun

    Great overview, although I am not such a fan of Taubes – his early work was great, but he has joined in with the general pile on of epidemiological work of Ancel Keyes. While Keyes had his issues, his epidemiological work was exceptional and many of the commonly attributed issues (such as selective choices of study countries) were fully explained in the original studies. The attacks are on straw man simplifications of the studies, not the actual studies.

    One key issue with the science of nutrition was its excessive reliance on reductionism – the notion that food is just a collection of macros and micros and could be studied as such. I remember a biology teacher of mine in school calling salad ‘just packaged water’, which was typical of the view of some scientists I’ve heard talk. This of course provided an opening for the food industry to insist that once their products had the correct ratios of minerals then it was ‘food’, and functionally the exact same as an apple or chicken leg or whatever. We now know this to be entirely false, but the refusal of some scientists (not all), to study diet in these terms which led to our problems. Now that we know about the role of satiety, fibre, the micro biome, etc., not to mention that sugar is not just a carb, there is no excuse for this approach, but its still not uncommon to see an implicit simplistic reductionism in many diet studies.

  11. Revenant

    It is always encouraging to see this discussed but that Table 1 of the Nova classification is defective.

    Take Group 1 foods, parts of plants or animals. Exactly which part of the animal is the yoghurt?! :-) Clearly dairy produce other than raw milk is a process food and should be Group 2.

    In contrast Group 3 claims canned vegetables in its membership. But why would anybody add sugar or salt to canned vegetables? Just flash pasteurise them and can them! They should be promoted to Group 2.

  12. Saffie

    As a mainly plant eating person, my understanding of this, is that the other side of this coin which should be considered is nutritional value. It is possible to have processed food that delivers good nutrition and effectively. Tofu and Seitan that’s not trying to exactly mimic meat, and is home made or with no additives and preservatives like some store sold ones, are very different to essentially non nutritional items flavoured to mimic real food but does nothing for the body. Which is what the UPF problem is about. Level of processing only tells half the story.
    *extra thought: one could probably argue that animal products are already processed (plants via the animals digestion into milk, eggs, meat). Whereas conscientiously made tofu and seitan products actually are less processed because it has less steps in it, being made directly from the plant.
    Always keen to learn more

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