Interview: Ultra-Processed People author Chris van Tulleken on the economics of food

In this Q+A, extracted from the latest episode of the Penguin Podcast, the author of Ultra Processed People talks about how ultra-processed food is changing our lives and bodies, and the complicated nature of our food economy.

If it seems like Chris van Tulleken’s new book, Ultra-Processed People, is everywhere right now, that’s because UPFs – ultra-processed foods – are too.

Subtitled Why do we all eat stuff that isn’t food… and why can’t we stop?, van Tulleken’s investigation is an eye-opening one, as he digs deep into the processes that keep our foods from spoiling, make them not only delicious but addictive, and are suppressing and altering our bodies’ natural operations.

Below, he speaks with Penguin Podcast host Isy Suttie about why the processes by which we make food are so hard to reverse, and why we should be concerned about the substances we’re ingesting so freely.

For the full podcast, listen here.

Isy Suttie: What I really love about this book is it isn't saying to people, ‘Don't eat this food.’ You're honest about the effects of the food, but you don't put the finger of blame on anyone, even the companies; actually, there's a bit where you talk about the purpose of businesses to make money, how they just aren't thinking about our health. It's not that they necessarily even don't care. It's not part of the plan, or would you say that...

Chris van Tulleken: Well, it's almost they do care, but they're unable to stop. I think of the food companies as quite pathetic. So I spoke to someone at a massive investment fund at BlackRock, and she said, “You do realise that Danone are not in control of their business model, right?’ and this was a kind of whiplash moment for me. Her point was that if Danone started making food that we eat less of (healthy food should fill us up, and ultra–processed food doesn't do that) and we started eating 10% less of each meal, and spending 10% less money, the Danone share price would fall.

That's what happened to the guy running Danone – Emmanuel Faber tried to do this. He turned Danone into a social enterprise and activist investors. It wasn't BlackRock, it was another group called Bluebell Capital Partners, said, ‘Yeah, we need our money. We're answerable to all our investors. You can do social good, if you like, but not on our dollar.’ So Faber was fired, essentially. And Danone went back to doing what Nestle and all the other companies do, their share price went back up, and everyone was happy. So many of the people I spoke to in the food industry were like, ‘We would love to stop selling addictive garbage to children. But we can't stop.’

I spoke to the head of an ice cream company, Alec Jaffe, who's headed for having the second biggest ice cream company in the world. I said, ‘Why can't you use eggs instead of emulsifiers?’ And he just said, ‘Well, we can use eggs, but they carry a risk of bacterial infection. They carry salmonella, potentially’ – there was literally, just in the news the day before I spoke to him, a salmonella scare. He said the cost of an egg yolk compared to the cost of the synthetic emulsifiers they use is massive. So you can get almost the same creamy custard-y thing that you get from eggs by using a chemical that costs 100 times less and doesn't have bacterial risk. So I'm quite sympathetic to the trap they're in.

So many people I spoke to in food were like, ‘We would love to stop selling addictive garbage to children. But we can't stop.’

Especially start-ups, I guess, because they've got really small margins.

The margins are so tight in these businesses. There's no margin in any of these companies. The arms race between Tesco and Sainsbury's and M&S – we've only got five or six supermarkets in this country. And the number one thing that customers want is cheap food. Because in the UK, we don't have any money. We live in such an unequal society. Everything is so expensive: our transport, our energy, our accommodation, we're paying so much on rent, there's nothing left for food. So consumers are hammering the supermarkets down, the supermarkets hammer the suppliers, the producers, so we end up with kind of the root problem being poverty and inequality.

And you also talk about the fact that ultra-processed food is easier to freeze, it lasts for longer. There's a brilliant moment where you talk about being in the park and your daughter is having an ice cream. You’re realising it hasn't melted and just going, ‘Hang on…’

What staggered me is that no one I know has ever read an ingredients list. Really. I mean, there are some fanatics who do, but until I became a scientist interested in ultra-processed food, I never read the ingredients on anything. I had no idea what was in my bread. I think there are so many conditions that we accept that we will just live with. My daughter's got terrible eczema, and so do half the other kids in her class. And the ones that don't have eczema will have asthma. And we just go ‘Well, this is modern life, isn't it?’ And yet, we are constructing our bodies out of really quite bizarre substances that we've never encountered before that have very powerful effects on our physiology.

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