Diet-related disease—which includes obesity, heart attack, strokes, cancer, and dementia—is the leading cause of early death in the UK. Driving it is a set of industrially processed products that are sold as food, known formally as ultra-processed food (UPF).
This type of food is usually wrapped in plastic and has additives that you won’t find in a typical kitchen. In the US and the UK, we get on average 60 percent of our calories from UPF products like pizza, bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, and nutritional drinks. They’re often sold as healthy options, but it’s just a way of turning our ill health into money. UPF is a byproduct of a complicated financial system that involves repurposing waste from animal food into human food.
To solve this problem, the first thing we need to do is include in the official UK guidance about nutrition the information that ultra-processed foods are associated with weight gain and diet-related diseases, and that the recommendation for people is to avoid these foods. Many countries like Brazil and France already do this.
Limiting the marketing of ultra-processed foods is essential. We need to learn the lessons from regulating the tobacco industry and stop predatory companies selling this food to people.
We also need to change the ultra-processed institutional food that we serve in hospitals, schools, and prisons. There is very good evidence that when feeding patients and staff in hospitals, real food is hugely beneficial.
There are also misconceptions we need to address. For instance, people who live with diet-related diseases, especially obesity, usually have a strong feeling of guilt, thinking they are the problem due to their own lack of willpower. Researchers now know this isn’t true. This food has been engineered to be addictive. We need to shift the blame away from the population.
Normally, we would blame the food companies and demand change from them. But when you speak to people in any of those companies it’s very clear that they are unable to change. Danone is the best example of this. Its previous CEO, Emmanuel Faber, tried to turn the company into a social enterprise by stopping the sale of ultra-processed food and increasing the environmental portfolio. The share price tanked, activist investors threw him out, and Danone had no option but to go back to its previous business model. All the big transnational food corporations are answerable to their owners. If we don’t understand this financial loop, we will keep shouting at companies that cannot change their business model. What we have to understand is that the responsibility lies with governments. They need a mandate from their population to change the regulations.
Another group of people whom we don’t criticize enough are the doctors, who have a very long history of partnering with transnational food corporations and supplement providers to mislead people. Most nutrition research is funded by the food industry and that’s clearly wrong.
Anyone who’s struggling with this as an individual should take their guilt and shame and transfer it outwardly to the corporations that are feeding us these addictive substances, to the governments doing nothing about it, and to the physicians and the social media personalities who keep telling us that this stuff is healthy. We need to end the conflict of interest between the industry and politicians, doctors and scientists. Only then can we really tackle the problem.
This article appears in the July/August 2023 edition of WIRED UK magazine.