Frank Hansen says ultra-processed food and makers’ profiteering are today’s big health scandal
Much of the focus of the left is on food poverty, the cost of living, and fixing the chronic crisis in the NHS. However, there is another important health issue that needs considering. Is the food we eat actually good for our health? Has the composition of food changed in our lifetime? Are the food companies that dominate world markets, reaping vast profits by producing industrialised “food”, which undermines health and puts enormous pressure on global health systems, to blame?
We may be living longer but are subject to rising metabolic health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, dementia, cancer etc. The Health Foundation predicts that by 2040 in England some nine million people (37% increase) will be living with major health problems. While linked to an ageing population, such illnesses are not inevitable, and are affecting us at an earlier age, with an unprecedented rise in obesity and T2 diabetes in young people. These threats shorten our “health-span”, diminish the quality of life and increase demand for healthcare services. The number of under 50s diagnosed with cancer worldwide has risen by 80% in three decades. There are now 200 million more overweight and obese people than those starving and underweight. Such rapid changes cannot be genetic, but must be environmental. Some leading scientists believe that changes in the food we eat could be a major factor driving this.
The idea that all this can all be fixed by new drugs (obesity pills?) is music to the ears of Big Pharma – itself responsible for profiteering through expensive solutions, some of which have failed drastically. Expensive medication may relieve symptoms, but if the problem is linked to the food we eat, a more effective and less costly cure would be for governments to tackle the problem at source – introducing regulations on producers to ensure food is genuinely life-sustaining. Existing regulations are mainly ineffective and derived from “research” undertaken by the industry itself. As in other areas self-regulation acts as a smokescreen for business as usual and hiding the problem – just look at the Water industry!
The failure of healthy eating schemes and diets (often based on poor science) has led to a climate where the problem is mainly blamed on the victim. We make “bad life-style choices” or “lack willpower” and fat shaming is rife. This culture is embedded in society and is supported by the mass media and many politicians. As with global warming, we are encouraged to believe that individual consumer action can really achieve change when producers and profits are the main problem. Only regulation and controls on production and marketing can result in meaningful change.
A good starting point – essential reading for those concerned about society’s health, as well as their own health – is Professor Tim Spector’s book Food for Life. He has developed an individualised approach to nutrition based on pioneering research, which debunks all the false notions of calorie counting and failed common sense “solutions” such as “eat less, move more”. He has identified the importance of the gut micro-biome (trillions of bacteria that live in our gut – developed in symbiosis with us through evolution) and classifies it as an important “organ” central to our health, strengthening our defences and our metabolic health. The effectiveness of these beneficial bacteria are dependent on the food we eat and are key to understanding how we interact with food both individually and as a species. Poor nutrition means a less effective micro-biome and potential health problems.
His says that virtually every common disease, particularly metabolic, has some link with nutrition. The key is that we should be eating REAL FOOD. This may sound obvious, but in reality, 57% (up to 80% for children and the poorest) of the UK diet isn’t real food but industrialised Ultra Processed Food (UPF). This is a relatively recent worldwide phenomenon (post WW2) which now affects most countries – with UPF consumption leading to rising western-style health problems. In contrast, in areas where longevity and health-span is the highest, people eat hardly any ultra-processed food. The bottom line is that UPF it is very profitable for Big Food to produce, in terms of costs and widespread consumption through availability and convenience in a time-restricted world. Meanwhile there is little understanding at government level and very few effective controls.
What is UPF?According to Tim Spector it is not food as our ancestors experienced it, but “reformulated food” – supplemented by chemicals and processed in large factories. Research indicates that UPFs “make us feel hungrier, we tend to over consume and they increase risks of disease and earlier death”. Ironically, UPF is often marketed as the “healthy option” e.g most supermarket bread is UPF even when labelled “healthy wholemeal”, virtually all breakfast cereals are UPF, most “low fat” products and many “healthy” snacks and drinks. It now turns out that eating normal fat in say Greek yoghurt does not make you fat or unhealthy – it is actually a healthy real food option. The problem is that once the good fat is removed the “low fat” product tastes horrible – so is replaced industrially with UP sugar and chemicals to make it “tastier”. Many “energy drinks” are also full of sugar and chemicals.
Food labelling is supposed to inform, but is often designed to confuse and deceive. To identify UPF you have to carefully read each label. If the product contains several ingredients that you do not recognize – like emulsifiers and colouring agents – then it is UPF and best to avoid. Unfortunately this could apply to many of your favourite ready meals/takeaways. UPF is designed to taste good – research and marketing aims at making it so. It can also be addictive leading to over-consumption. The norm used to be three meals a day – now people are encouraged to snack frequently, this is another way our metabolism is disrupted. – so best to stick to real fruit or nuts rather than “healthy snacks”. Better still, give your body time to work and rest by regular time-restricted eating.
Consumption of UPF is likely to have a long term impact. Our metabolism isn’t a simple calories in/out machine but a complex organism with many hormones influencing how food is absorbed by the body for energy, growth and repair. UPFs can disrupt these systems. It is now accepted that insulin insensitivity, linked to UP sugar and carbs, can cause obesity and trigger T2 diabetes.
Yet replacing UPF with real food can re-balance hormones, replenish the biome, help people lose weight and promote better health. It is never too late!
While we can partly address this problem ourselves through scientific information and self-help groups, at a societal level, a Labour Government needs to take the lead in protecting us from poor nutrition. But will this happen?
Labour’s 10 Year Plan for Health at least recognises that the rise in obesity, T2 diabetes etc is making the NHS “unsustainable” and that better public health policies are needed. Given that the UK is way behind many countries in introducing a sugar tax and food labelling, what Labour proposes is pretty tame. It neither seems to understand the problem nor meets the challenge. It avoids tackling the issue at source – avoiding the type of controls successfully applied to the Tobacco industry – albeit decades after the cancer link was identified.
Labour’s plan focuses on“new limits on the amount of sugar, fat and salt in food marketed to children”. A step forward but no mention of a sugar tax. To avoid accusations of nanny state policies, for adults all that is suggested is “a traffic-light labelling system” to ensure that consumers can make healthy choices. A good step forward, but will the system highlight UPF content? There will also be goals to “encourage more of the population to be physically active”, including of two hours PE per week in schools, to achieve a “sustained downward trend in obesity”. Of course exercise has many health benefits, but one of them is not to provide a solution to obesity. The “eat less, move more” mantra has failed. The latest research indicates that you cannot run off a poor diet. It is the diet that needs to be changed. Limiting sugar, fat and salt for children and providing better labelling for adults is a start but only scratches the surface. Labour needs to up its game, working with experts in the field, such as Dr Chris van Tulleken who maintains “industrialised food is the problem not individual consumers. I resent our food system being so polluted”. He would like UPF to be treated like cigarettes, be heavily taxed, and banned from schools with restrictions on marketing.
Taking on big business is not easy – look at how the oil and tobacco companies behave. To achieve change Labour needs to campaign in the community and gain the support of the millions who are affected by or concerned about ill-health. But there is a quick win. Outside politics a growing science-driven, real food movement exists, providing information and support. For example, Spector’s ZOE programme is an excellent way for individuals to deal with UPFs. It provides useful free information, but it is expensive to join access testing and the monitoring programme that provides individualised nutrition guidance.Yet compared with expensive drugs, such programmes deliver value for money and the NHS should provide free access, By engaging people and showing them a positive way of improving their health, the support necessary to take on Big Food can be mobilised to challenge vested interests and the ignorant Tory ideology of “blame the individual, don’t blame business and Stop the Nanny State”.