How ultra-processed food harms your health and how to fix the problem

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FROM cocktail sausages to ready meals, ultra-processed food has long been suspected of being nutritionally inferior. Most dietary guidelines say this is because it tends to be high in fat, sugar and salt. But that is missing something vital, says doctor, academic and TV presenter Chris van Tulleken in his new book, Ultra-Processed People: Why do we all eat stuff that isn’t food… and why can’t we stop?

What really determines a meal’s nutritional value, says van Tulleken, is how it is made: in the home or a factory. This idea puts a spotlight not on individual ingredients, but on how the way they have been processed, reformulated and cooked affects our health. The industrial techniques used to make many modern foods not only add unhealthy ingredients, but also change the way the foods themselves interact with our body, says van Tulleken – and with ultra-processed food now making up more than half of all food eaten in many Western countries, the consequences for much of the world’s health are catastrophic. He tells New Scientist what we can do to turn this trend around.

Clare Wilson: Why is ultra-processed food worse than the food we cook from scratch at home?

Chris van Tulleken: The industrial processes involved in food manufacturing change its chemical and physical structure. They reduce food crops to their core constituents, such as high fructose corn syrup made from corn starch or hydrolysed vegetable protein from soya beans, which are then reformulated into substances that are highly palatable and calorific. These processes strip out fibre and micronutrients. Then ingredients are added that our bodies haven’t evolved to cope …

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